State leaders and municipal CEOs from across the state convened on Zoom to discuss continuing challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Pictured are (clockwise from top left) MMA Executive Director Geoff Beckwith; Jana Ferguson, assistant commissioner at the Department of Public Health; Education Secretary James Peyser; Samantha Aigner-Treqorgy, commissioner of Early Education and Care; Dr. Larry Madoff, medical director at the Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences at the Department of Public Health & Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito.

With schools across the state readying to reopen, education-related issues were on the minds of top-level state officials and municipal leaders this afternoon during the 20th in a series of regular briefing calls convened by the MMA since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Education Secretary James Peyser gave a status report on early education, K-12, and higher education in Massachusetts, saying that about two-thirds of public school districts – accounting for about half of the state’s K-12 student population – are now planning to offer either in-person learning or a hybrid model. Because hybrid plans offer a blend of in-person and remote learning, this means that less than half of the state’s students will be at school on any given day.

Early Education and Care Commissioner Samantha Aigner-Treworgy discussed the state’s efforts to help meet the unusual demand for supervision of students in hybrid or remote learning situations during regular school hours while parents are working.

“Our out-of-school-time programs – those programs that generally serve children who are in school during the school day – are being called on more and more to help serve in virtual learning support roles that parents need,” she said.

Under an executive order signed by the governor on Aug. 28, the state’s 8,000-plus licensed school-aged child care programs (such as YMCAs and Boys & Girls Clubs) may now serve students during normal school hours, in addition to their typical after-school and vacation programs. Additionally, Aigner-Treworgy said her department is expediting the licensing process to enable these vetted providers to partner with municipalities to offer services in public facilities such as recreation centers as needed, and she encouraged local officials to pursue this option.

The executive order created a new exemption from state licensure requirements this school year for “remote learning enrichment programs” offered by private entities, such as employers, that would not be interested in offering child care services on a longer-term basis but can help to meet current needs. These programs must first be approved by the municipality and follow state requirements issued jointly by the Department of Early Education and Care and Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“We know that parents are relying on these services this year,” she said, so the state created this “pathway for … valuable, critical resources.”

According to the guidance from the EEC and DESE, “Municipalities will establish their own processes to work with interested entities, verify their eligibility, monitor their programs on an ongoing basis, and notify EEC of any non-compliance with the … minimum criteria,” while municipalities may also impose additional requirements.

The municipality must:
• Confirm that the entity will maintain a 1:13 ratio of staff members to children, and a maximum group size of 26, following the state’s physical distance requirement
• Complete Criminal Offender Record Information, Sex Offender Registry Information, and Department of Children and Families child welfare checks for all staff members, volunteers and adults who will be around children
• Make a site visit and confirm that the facility has up-to-date fire, lead paint, and other applicable building inspections
• Confirm that the children attending are enrolled in public or private school, in kindergarten or above
• Obtain an attestation from the entity that it will follow all health and safety requirements set by the EEC and DESE

Aigner-Treworgy said the “municipal approving authority” can be any entity at the local level that is designated by the municipal CEO (typically a mayor or town manager or administrator). She said it might be best to select an entity that has the capacity and authority to run background checks.

After getting local approval, the provider can apply online for the EEC exemption for the school year.

Programs that are not either licensed or municipally sanctioned as “remote learning enrichment programs” would be subject to EEC enforcement actions.

The Aug. 28 executive order also authorizes “remote learning parent cooperatives,” allowing up to five families to coordinate the supervision of their school-aged children during the school day, as long as a parent is present at all times. Parent cooperatives must follow the state’s restrictions on gatherings, cannot employ a teacher or professional without a parent present, and are urged to follow health and safety guidelines from the EEC and DESE to the extent feasible.

The EEC website provides details of options to expand access to safe care and support when children are enrolled in fully remote or hybrid learning models this school year, including the remote learning enrichment programs exemption.

Peyser said the DESE has entered into statewide contracts with two online learning platforms “to enable all districts to gain affordable access to asynchronous courses” and is putting out RFPs this week for services to support higher-need districts, medically vulnerable students, early literacy needs, and students who have suffered the most learning loss since schools were closed in March.

[DESE’s website has COVID-19 resources and guidance for school districts, on a range of topics including remote learning.]

Peyser said mobile rapid response testing will be made available “to quickly address any school-based [COVID] clusters in real time.”

He said there was adequate early education capacity in Massachusetts through the summer, but the state is “still very much in the situation where we’re trying to determine what our needs will be” this fall and beyond. He noted a survey of 100 large employers last month by the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership indicating that nearly half of their workforces are expected to continue to work remotely even after COVID treatments are available.

In the higher education sector, Peyser said most colleges are pursuing online learning for a majority of their classes and many are limiting the number of students on campus. State colleges are expecting to have only about half of the regular number of students either living on campus or taking at least one course on campus.

“Financially, this is likely to be a rough year for every college,” he said, and next year could be worse.

COVID and other updates
Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito gave an update on COVID in Massachusetts, noting that the state now has among the lowest coronavirus reproduction rates in the country. The most recent weekly report from the Department of Public Health designated eight communities as red, meaning they had average daily case rates of eight or more per 100,000 residents over the previous two weeks, while 49 were designated yellow, with case rates between four and eight. Polito said the administration is working with red communities on COVID order enforcement and testing strategies and with yellow communities to move their numbers downward.

On Sept. 3, the administration announced that it was stepping up its targeted initiative to slow the spread of COVID-19 in communities with the highest number of positive cases. The top five communities – Chelsea, Everett, Lawrence, Lynn and Revere – will get regular neighborhood-level assessments and a comprehensive multi-lingual public messaging campaign. The effort is led by the Commonwealth’s COVID-19 Enforcement and Intervention Team.

Polito also announced that a new round of Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities grants is becoming available, with an application deadline of Dec. 11. The competitive annual grant makes federal funds available for pre-disaster mitigation activities. The Notice of Funding Opportunity was published Sept. 1, and webinar briefings are scheduled for Sept. 10 and 11.

She added that the one-month application period for the Community Compact IT grant program will open on Sept. 15, with a total of $3 million available for one-time capital needs.

Audio of Sept. 8 call with administration (37M MP3)
Remote Learning Exempt Programs presentation by Dept. of Early Education and Care (285K PDF)

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