State and local leaders convened on Zoom to discuss COVID vaccine distribution. Pictured are (top row, l-r) MMA Executive Director Geoff Beckwith; Sean Cronin, senior deputy commissioner at the Division of Local Services; Heath Fahle, special director for federal funds at the Executive Office of Administration and Finance; (middle row, l-r) Russell Johnston, senior associate commissioner at the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education; Dr. Larry Madoff, medical director at the Department of Public Health; Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito; (bottom row) Jana Ferguson, assistant commissioner at the Department of Public Health.

Three fast-moving topics — vaccines, a new federal aid package, and the state push to return students to in-person learning this spring — dominated today’s biweekly conference call with top state officials and municipal CEOs convened by the MMA.

As the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education was releasing guidance to school districts about new in-person learning requirements, Senior Associate Commissioner of Education Russell Johnston explained the rules and the process.

As of April 5, hybrid and remote learning models will no longer count toward meeting the required student learning time hours for kindergarten through grade 5. Middle school students (grades 6-8) will need to return in person by April 28, and high school students will be returning to schools before the end of the school year, at a date to be determined.

The hybrid option will be phased out, but families will have the option of continuing remote learning or sending their kids back to school. Districts are urged to survey their student families as soon as possible to determine their preference.

“We know, with the data that we have from districts that are already doing this, that schools are very much safe places for our students and for our teachers,” Johnston said.

He added that 80% of the state’s public school districts are at least offering hybrid learning, and many are offering full in-person education. He said districts are welcome to transition to in-person learning before the deadlines and a number are now doing so.

The guidance allows districts to seek a waiver from the DESE under limited specified circumstances. Districts that don’t receive a waiver and fail to comply with the new rules will be required to make up any missed structured learning time during this school year, over the summer, or into next school year if necessary. Johnston pointed out that state law links Chapter 70 education aid to structured learning time.

“We don’t want to be looking at a funding kind of consequence from this,” he said. “There are options on the table for districts that struggle to be able to comply with this. We hope that we can provide technical assistance, and get as many districts up and running by April 5 as possible.”

The pooled testing program continues to expand, with more than 1,000 participating schools — more than half of the statewide total, Johnston said. The DESE has eliminated the deadline for joining the program and has extended its commitment to cover all costs through April 18. Johnston encouraged districts to sign up soon, so they can avoid having to pay start-up costs. Once the program is rolling, the cost to districts works out to be about $3 to $5 per individual per week, which is reimbursable through federal aid programs.

Districts and schools can sign up for the pooled testing initiative by emailing

The state’s roughly 400,000 educators, school staff and child care workers can begin making vaccination appointments this Thursday, joining the currently eligible group (individuals age 65 and older, individuals with two or more specified medical conditions, and residents and staff of low-income and affordable senior housing), which numbers about 1 million.

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said information could be available by the end of the week about dedicated days for educators at the state’s seven MassVax sites, and she encouraged regional collaborative vaccine locations to align with those dates. She said the federal government, which supplies vaccine doses directly to CVS pharmacies, will be providing additional doses through that program for school staff. Last week, President Joe Biden urged states to have all their educators inoculated with at least one dose by the end of March.

With 2.1 million doses delivered and 13% of the population fully vaccinated, she said Massachusetts continues to be the per capita vaccine leader among the 24 states with populations of at least 5 million. State officials hope that the approval of a third vaccine, by Johnson & Johnson, will accelerate the vaccine program, but the state has received only 58,000 doses of the single-dose vaccine thus far, and production issues are expected to delay further shipments until next month.

When vaccines come to the Commonwealth, she said, 38% go to hospitals, 23% to retail pharmacies, 11% to Mass Vax sites, 10% to local boards of health and regional collaboratives, and about 5% to community health centers. She said the Department of Public Health is working on a data project to provide more information, by community, about doses administered and age and ethnicity breakdowns.

The DPH is leaning on municipal officials and local boards of health, housing authorities and councils on aging to assist in efforts to vaccinate individuals who are unable to leave their homes. Polito said the state is considering a mobile vaccine program “for some of the harder-to-reach neighborhoods and places.”

Polito said the state is extending the Stop the Spread testing program, which was due to expire later this month, through June 30.

With the state having returned to Step 2 of Phase 3 of the four-phase reopening plan on March 1, Polito looked toward March 22, the current target for moving to Step 1 of Phase 4, contingent on continued improvement in public health metrics. Indoor and outdoor stadiums, arenas and ballparks will be permitted to operate at 12% capacity after submitting a plan to the DPH, and gathering limits for public settings will increase to 100 people indoors and 150 people outdoors. Private gatherings will be limited, initially, to 25 outdoors and 10 indoors.

She said administration officials are meeting with various business groups that are in that Phase 4 category and preparing the “protocols for further lifting of restrictions and reopening some of those activities and venues.”

She encouraged local officials to evaluate their outdoor dining options and determine “what you need to do relative to zoning or local decisions,” potentially at spring town meetings, to make any desired emergency provisions permanent.

“If you need further guidance on that,” she said, “we’re happy to work to do so.”

“A lot of what was permitted last year [particularly off-premises dining] was tied to our state of emergency and our emergency orders,” she said. “And there will be an expiration of that emergency declaration at some point.”

American Rescue Plan
Heath Fahle, special director for federal funds at the Executive Office for Administration and Finance, gave an update on the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which passed the U.S. Senate last Saturday and is expected to face a House vote Wednesday before being sent to President Joe Biden for his signature.

While details are still being worked out, he said, in broad strokes the bill would provide $350 billion in direct assistance from the federal government to state and local governments for costs — and revenue loss — associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The preliminary estimates that we’ve seen suggest that that translates into about $8 billion” for state government, municipalities and counties in Massachusetts.

“Once we sort of unpack the final version,” he said, “we’ll have a clearer sense of what the allocations are going to look like for the states and for individual cities and towns.”

He added that the bill leaves it to the Treasury Department to ascertain what the actual allocations will be.

The eligible uses by local governments are similar to those for the Coronavirus Relief Fund from the CARES Act of 2020, Fahle said, along with some new uses such as premium pay for public workers and certain infrastructure investments related to water, sewer and broadband.

Local governments would receive the funds in two batches, the first half about 90 days from now, and the second about a year later. The funds will be available until Dec. 31, 2024.

Full details about the revenue replacement component are not yet available, Fahle said, “but it looks like from the text of the bill that the comparison point for calculating revenue loss will be your fiscal 2019 revenue amount.”

The package includes a third round for the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief grant program.

Once the bill becomes law, the U.S. Treasury Department will issue guidance for use of the funds, as well as reporting requirements.

• Audio of March 9 call with administration (38M MP3)

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