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; Sean Cronin, senior deputy commissioner at the Division of Local Services; Jana Ferguson, assistant commissioner at the Department of Public Health; Russell Johnston, senior associate commissioner at the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education; Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito & Dr. Larry Madoff, medical director at the Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences at the Department of Public Health.

As the weather begins to cool and schoolchildren complete their first couple weeks of school, state and local officials this afternoon discussed a range of school, finance and economic issues related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic response.

In the 21st regular call with city and town leaders from across the state, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito highlighted recent changes intended to give a boost to restaurants, which have been hard-hit by the COVID-related economic slowdown. She said the administration would be sharing news with local boards of health today about relaxed rules governing bar seating for dining at restaurants and an increase in the number of patrons allowed at a single table, from six to 10, effective Sept. 28.

She also discussed the Sept. 10 executive order, effective immediately, that extended the deadline for expanded outdoor dining, from Nov. 1 to 60 days after the end of the COVID state of emergency. The order enables cities and towns to continue to allow these temporary operations in areas such as sidewalks and parking lots. As it becomes necessary to heat these temporary spaces, Polito pointed out that restaurants will need to work with local boards of health on the rules surrounding options such as using tents.

The Sept. 10 order also allowed the reopening of indoor and outdoor arcades.

In another effort to help small businesses, she said, the state has extended the deferred collection of regular sales, meals and room occupancy taxes for the period of March 2020 through April 2021, so that they will be due in May 2021.

As most of the state’s colleges and universities have resumed operations, to varying degrees, this fall, they have conducted about 500,000 COVID tests on students and staff since Aug. 15, with only about 500 positive cases – significantly below the statewide positive test rate of 0.8%. She said the results of college testing are being included in the state’s overall COVID data reports.

Polito said the administration is in the process of reexamining the state’s capacity limits for businesses and activities and gatherings order – particularly as they relate to other states – and an announcement about possible changes is expected in the next couple weeks. She said the administration is also contemplating a start date for Step 2 of Phase 3 of the four-phase state reopening plan. The first step of Phase 3 began 11 weeks ago, on July 6. Step 2 of Phase 3 would reopen theaters and performance venues (such as concert halls), among other activities. She reminded local officials that they have the option of enacting local rules that are more conservative than the state measures.

School reopening
After developing more than 25 guidance documents totalling more than 200 pages over the summer, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is now focused on providing “targeted assistance” to districts and helping them get as many children into classrooms as is safely possible, said Senior Associate Commissioner Russell Johnston.

Noting that there have been only “limited cases” of COVID in schools thus far, he urged school departments to develop close relationships with local boards of health in order to be prepared for a range of potential COVID-related events.

On Sept. 11, the DESE issued a memo outlining protocols for requesting mobile rapid response COVID testing units, which Johnston said are “available when required to understand and ascertain if there has been transmission of cases from within a school.” He said the DESE is asking local boards of health to work closely with the state Department of Public Health to assess when mobile testing might be prudent. The DESE is also asking schools and districts to share any case information in order to help the education department understand the situation in the field and so it can provide assistance.

Johnston said his department is in the midst of a statewide outreach project to school nurses to “support their pivotal role in schools and providing safe learning environments.” The department is also working to help school psychologists reduce their assessment backlog, including a webinar today on how to remotely evaluate students “reliably, with validity, but also safely.”

The DESE worked with a third party to develop an array of communication templates that districts may tailor and use to reassure parents about the safety of schools. Johnston said the tools include letters that are designed to provide the types of messages that resonate with parents. In some cases, he said, the letters provide language that school districts have never had to develop or use before, such as notification about a COVID case in a school building. For example, he said, it’s important not to refer to a single case as “an outbreak.”

Johnston reaffirmed that his department remains focused on prioritizing in-person learning, noting that the DESE recently reached out to 16 districts in communities that are designated by the DPH as low-risk but are teaching remotely, inquiring about plans to expand in-person learning and providing feedback about how they can make progress toward that goal.

“The data are telling us that we can have students in front of teachers and that we should,” he said. “So let’s make every effort to move toward that.”

He said the DESE is working on compiling all its guidance into a single, searchable online compendium that will be updated as needed.

Fiscal and other matters
Sean Cronin, senior deputy commissioner at the Division of Local Services, said Round 2 of the Coronavirus Relief Fund program is expected to be announced within a week, with a webinar expected around Oct. 1 to explain the guidance for the federal aid program as well as the process and reporting requirements, which will be “a little bit different from Round 1.” The notice and invitation for the webinar will be sent by the MMA to the chief municipal official in each community, who may, in turn, forward the email to health boards and other appropriate officials.

Cronin said local officials have been contacting the DLS asking how they can set their tax rates without a final Cherry Sheet indicating all state aid and assessments. (Cherry Sheets cannot be issued without a final state budget, which has been delayed while state budget writers assess the likely impact of the COVID emergency on state tax collections in fiscal 2021, which began on July 1.) He reminded local officials that the fiscal 2021 numbers are available for the two main local aid programs – Unrestricted General Government Aid and Chapter 70 education aid – based on a July 30 agreement between the administration and legislative leaders to at least level-fund those two accounts. For other tax rate questions, he suggested that local officials contact their DLS field representative for assistance.

“Like many things in life right now, this is very different,” he said. “This situation hasn’t come up [before].”

In response to a question about guidance relative to the annual Halloween ritual of house-to-house trick or treating, Polito said the DPH is looking at what other states are doing and will be providing guidance – informal or otherwise – soon. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention today released general guidance for Halloween activities.

Dr. Larry Madoff, medical director at the Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences at the Department of Public Health, said Massachusetts now leads the country in testing per capita. He added that the DPH’s Daily Dashboard reports are now nearly 25 pages long due to the wide range of data the state is acquiring and reporting.

The next administration briefing for municipal CEOs convened by the MMA is scheduled for Oct. 6.

Audio of Sept. 22 call with administration (32M MP3)

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