State leaders and municipal CEOs from across the state convened on Zoom to discuss reopening of schools and status of federal aid. Pictured are (clockwise from top left) MMA Executive Director Geoff Beckwith; Dr. Larry Madoff, medical director at the Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences at the Department of Public Health; Department of Public Health Assistant Commissioner Jana Ferguson; Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito; and Education Commissioner Jeff Riley.

All eyes are on Washington as the Commonwealth prepares to reopen schools in September, and cities, towns and school districts await answers about any additional federal aid that may be forthcoming.

On a day when the state Legislature quickly passed a three-month interim state budget to pay bills through Oct. 31, full fiscal year numbers remain unresolved and “more to come” was a frequent answer to questions from municipal leaders about vexing fiscal issues during a conference call with state leaders convened by the MMA.

Though local aid decisions are not fully formed, the administration continues to make progress on an array of COVID-19-related issues.

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito discussed the state’s travel order, effective Saturday, that comes in response to a surge of COVID cases in many other states, particularly in the South and West. All visitors and Massachusetts residents returning home, including college students returning for the fall semester, must fill out a Massachusetts Travel Form and quarantine for 14 days unless they are coming from a designated “COVID-19 lower risk state” – currently the New England states along with New York, New Jersey and Hawaii – or they can produce a negative COVID-19 test result administered no more than 72 hours prior to arriving in Massachusetts. There are exemptions for those commuting for work, passing through the state without staying, or visiting for medical treatment, among other reasons, but not a specific exemption for “essential” employees. Violators risk a fine of $500 per day.

For employers, the travel order magnifies concerns about employees who choose to travel to states and countries where COVID is surging. Can they be required to take a COVID test after coming home in order to expedite their return to work (if the result is negative)? Must they be paid in full during the quarantine period? Are they covered under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act? Can the employer deny a vacation request based on the chosen destination? With this in mind, Polito said the administration is updating its human resources policies for state employees, and would be happy to share the new rules with municipalities, which may use them as a model. She said the new policies would be available this week.

School reopening
Education Commissioner Jeff Riley discussed his decision early this week, in consultation with teachers’ unions, to allow schools to delay their openings by as much as two weeks in order to give districts time to conduct additional staff training on COVID-related protocols.

“I felt very confident taking the 180-day rule and taking 10 of those days off to make sure that our teachers feel that they have the training that they need to open in a safe way,” he said, referring to the state-mandated number of school days per year.

With school reopening being a hot topic these days, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education recently issued what Riley called “stop/start guidance” – otherwise known as Protocols for Responding to COVID-19 Scenarios in School, on the Bus, or in Community Settings – and specific guidance for arts and physical education programs. Riley said a working group continues to develop guidance for school sports programs, which is expected in early August.

Polito added that the Executive Office for Energy and Environmental Affairs will continue to revise its overarching guidance for youth and amateur sports activities, as needed, and school sports will fall within those parameters.

Both Polito and Riley emphasized the role of health care professionals in the formulation of the DESE’s back-to-school guidance. Polito called the guidance “reasonable and medically backed and supported” and “available to the school districts in a format that is understandable.” Riley reiterated the department’s emphasis on “getting kids back in person to the greatest extent possible,” while also being prepared for a potential resurgence of the coronavirus.

“I know everyone’s anxious about this,” Polito said, “but it’s really important to do it and do it right.”

School districts have until Friday to submit to the DESE preliminary plans for how they would reopen schools under three scenarios: in-person learning (with adherence to state guidance regarding face coverings, social distancing and other protocols), remote learning, and a hybrid of the two. By Aug. 10, districts must finalize their plans for the option of their choice.

“A lot of the decision-making will come through the school committee level,” Riley said, adding that the state won’t mandate which option to implement.

Riley said his department has been working with the Department of Public Health to make free and expedited testing available to schools, and that details will be announced in the next week or so.

Teachers’ unions have been calling for the cancellation of MCAS testing, but Riley said he’s reluctant to do so because the standardized tests provide important data for assessing where improvements are needed. He said a decision won’t come until “much later in the year.” Discussions with union representatives, he added, were broad-based and avoided issues that could interfere with any contract provisions executed at the local level.

Riley is among those who are hopeful that Congress and the Trump administration – many of whom are strong proponents of a full return to school in the fall – will provide another round of funding for costly COVID-related health and safety precautions at schools and on school buses.

In the meantime, he said, districts should be tapping the $194 million in federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund grants and the $202 million from the Commonwealth’s CARES Act Coronavirus Relief Fund allocation, which provides up to $225 per student for eligible costs such as staff training, supplemental social and academic services, reconfiguration of school spaces, leasing of temporary facilities, and acquisition of health and hygiene supplies. The ESSER grants are available through fiscal 2022, while the CRF funds must be spent by the end of 2020. The CRF money for schools is separate from, and in addition to, the $502 million distributed under the Municipal Coronavirus Relief Fund program, and goes directly to school districts, not to municipalities.

Another $25 million in federal funds is available through a matching grant program to help school districts and charter schools close technology gaps that have inhibited remote learning for students and families who lack access to computers or internet connections. Riley said the application period for these funds has closed, and grant announcements will be out next week.

Riley said his department would not be weighing in on afterschool programs provided by vendors or municipalities in school buildings. Such programs would be subject to guidance from the Department of Early Education and Care.

Fiscal matters and other updates
Riley said his department will not hazard a guess on final Chapter 70 amounts for fiscal 2021, a decision that rests with the Legislature.

With local budgets in limbo without final Chapter 70 and Unrestricted General Government Aid numbers to work with, Sean Cronin, senior deputy commissioner at the Division of Local Services, said his agency has advised communities to hold off on setting tax rates for fiscal 2021 until the Legislature sets local aid numbers in an approved, full-year state budget. He reassured local leaders that the DLS has the capacity to approve a rush of tax rates that come in all at once, and a “legislative fix” may be necessary if local aid numbers aren’t known by November.

Polito gave an update on the administration’s free strategic testing program, known as Stop the Spread, which was expanded yesterday to 16 communities and will run through Aug. 14. The program targets communities that are seeing higher COVID rates than the state average, and makes tests available even to those without symptoms. (The state’s Get Tested website provides comprehensive testing information and locations.)

Polito also discussed the substantial progress made on food insecurity, a problem worsened by the impact of COVID-19 on the economy, as well as related programs promoting local food producers. The state has begun awarding food security infrastructure grants, with applications continuing to be accepted through Sept. 15. The MassGrown Exchange website launches tomorrow, providing a tool for businesses looking to sell, donate or purchase Massachusetts food products and services. And the state has created a Find Food Assistance web portal to help individuals in need.

The MMA-convened municipal CEO briefing was the 17th in a series that began in March. The next call is scheduled for Aug. 11.

Audio of July 28 call with administration (37M MP3)

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