Governor Charlie Baker on Wednesday extended the shutdown of Massachusetts schools until early May in the latest measure to contain the coronavirus, as the number of diagnosed infections across the state jumped by more than half in a single day.
Baker said all schools, public and private, and all nonemergency day care facilities would be closed until May 4. On March 17, schools were closed across the state for three weeks, while Boston had closed its schools until late April.
At a State House news conference, Baker said he wanted to be clear that the protracted closure does not amount to “an extended school vacation." State education officials will "work with school districts to further develop educational programming students can use at home,” he said.
“This will allow school districts to provide the best possible opportunities for remote learning to all students,” he said.
Baker’s announcement came as state public health officials announced four additional coronavirus-related deaths, bringing the statewide total to 15. The number of confirmed cases rose by 679 to 1,838. Nearly 20,000 people have now been tested, up from fewer than 14,000 on Tuesday.
The latest victims were two men in their 80s, from Norfolk County and Barnstable County; a man in his 70s from Worcester County; and a woman in her 70s from Worcester County, state officials said.
While closing schools throughout April will only add to the hardships for families whose routines have been upended, local educators said the move is necessary given the depth of the crisis.
“I’m glad Governor Baker made the call, and I think it was the right one,” Julie Hackett, superintendent of the Lexington Public Schools, said in an e-mail. “Our students, staff, and families need to be able to plan ahead.''
Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said the announcement helps school officials chart a course for the rest of the school year.
“We have been trying to figure out the duration of the school closings, and the length of the closing has bearing on what districts can do and the supports they can provide for students and families,'' he said.
In Boston, the school system will continue to provide free meals, printed learning materials, and toiletries at emergency sites, officials said. The district has distributed close to 20,000 Chromebooks so that students can keep up with their coursework online.
Baker also announced that the state will partner with public television station WGBH to launch online education resources for children across Massachusetts. WGBH is also committing to televise educational content between noon and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, he said.
"They and we understand that not every district and not every student has the same access to computers, the Internet, and tablets,” he said.
Educators have been scrambling to provide online learning opportunities during the hiatus.
In Newton, superintendent David A. Fleishman said schools will now focus on developing new guidelines for distance learning, ensuring all students have access to it, and deciding how to assess what they’re learning.
“Thus far, most districts have just done enrichment. But that is going to change,” Fleishman said. “It’s kind of like we’re getting ready to fly the plane and we’re building the plane at the same time."
At his news conference, Baker said state housing officials are suspending all nonemergency evictions from state-aided low-income housing. Families facing housing insecurity can seek up to $4,000 through a state program, and lenders and financial institutions are being told that state officials expect them to delay foreclosures by 60 days, officials said.
State officials are working on a new public health order to improve social distancing at grocery stores and pharmacies. Under the directive, they must reserve at least one hour a day exclusively for shoppers 60 and older and offer hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes for employees. Self-service food stations should also be closed and plastic bag bans are lifted.
Also Wednesday, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh said further restrictions to curb the outbreak will not be needed if people stay at home and practice social distancing.
“We don’t have to take the next step if people just abide by the rules,” he said.
At the same time, Walsh said, “we’re certainly not ruling anything out" in terms of stricter measures. The McChrystal Group, led by former general Stanley McChrystal, is working with city officials on “preparing us for the inevitability, potentially, of shutting down the entire city," he said.
“We know that this isn’t easy," he said. “Every single step we take is to prevent illness and loss of life."
Walsh said anyone who isn’t convinced of the need for restricting social interaction should look at the situation in New York, which is facing a surge in cases.
“He’s basically telling us a road map on how to prevent what New York’s going through,” he said.
The virus has caused a global pandemic that has sickened more than 466,000 people and killed more than 21,000 worldwide. In the United States, more than 65,000 people have been sickened and more than 900 have died, according to Johns Hopkins University.
In some people, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the virus can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and it can be deadly.
For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks. The vast majority of people recover.
On Wednesday, state Representative Michael Day of Stoneham said he had tested positive for COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.
Massachusetts Representative Seth Moulton said Wednesday that he has been experiencing symptoms and may miss votes in the House in the coming days. Moulton began feeling unwell last Thursday, with a low grade fever and a tightness in his chest “to a degree I’ve never felt before," he said in a statement. He said he sought out medical attention and was told that his mild symptoms did not qualify him for a coronavirus test.
In other news, the MBTA announced that three bus drivers had tested positive for the virus, the first transit operators to contract it. The drivers all worked out of a facility that serves several lines in South Boston, Dorchester, Roxbury, and other parts of Boston.
The agency said it "took immediate steps to protect its workforce and riders by enacting its facility maintenance protocols to clean and disinfect all exposed work areas, vehicles, and equipment” at the facility.
Still, some drivers are a bit uneasy.
“To be honest with you, I’m not going to say I’m not fearful. I’m worrisome, because you never know who’s got it,” said Robert Littles, a driver who works out of a Charlestown garage. “But at the end of the day I still have to get out there and do my job, so I don’t let that fear take control of me.”
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