As the coronavirus pandemic maintains a sturdy grip on Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker on Tuesday ordered all public and private schools to remain closed for the remainder of the academic year, dashing any hope that 12th-graders will return for graduation and assuring that all students will continue the grind of online learning for two more months.
Baker also ordered most day care centers to remain closed until the end of June. The two orders will likely have a domino effect on the state’s workforce, as many parents juggle the demands of working at home while also overseeing their children’s education.
The extended school closures mean students will now be out of school for about six months — if classes resume in September. It is believed to be the longest-ever statewide shuttering of schools in Massachusetts, eclipsing what many considered to be a record set more than four decades ago when the Blizzard of ’78 caused widespread school closures for much of February.
But Baker said the extreme measure was imperative to protect the safety and well-being of the more than 1 million public and private school students statewide as well as tens of thousands of educators entrusted with their care — and those they have contact with. He noted there was no “authoritative guidance” on how to operate schools safely.
“We believe students therefore cannot safely return to school and avoid the risk of transmitting this virus to others,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do, considering the facts on the ground associated with the COVID-19 pandemic."
Baker’s decision ends weeks of speculation about whether there would be any chance of bringing students back together before the school year ends. Schools statewide have been closed since mid-March.
In an age of social distancing, the debate was generating wide-ranging questions that many school leaders never imagined contemplating: Would students need to wear masks in school or have their temperature taken daily? Is it possible to keep students 6 feet apart in cafeterias, recess, or on school buses? Would class sizes have to be cut in half or more to maintain a 6-foot radius around each desk? Would it even be possible to keep preschoolers and kindergartners away from each other?
“We don’t have enough data right now to make these decisions we want to make,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh told WGBH News Tuesday afternoon, as he voiced support for Baker’s decision.
Baker’s decision quickly drew a collective sigh of relief from statewide education organizations and superintendents around the region, following a growing call from a number of them to keep schools closed.
“We need to take a breather and do some long-term planning,” said Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. “We are not going to come back under normal conditions.”
Holliston Superintendent Brad Jackson said it was unfortunate that the pandemic’s course will require students to miss out on a big chunk of their education.
“We’ve learned that nothing can replace the connection between students and teachers when they’re together,” he said. “As much as we’re trying with remote learning, it’s not the same.”
With Baker’s order, Massachusetts joins Vermont, New Hampshire, and more than two dozen other states that have decided against reopening schools this academic year, according to Education Week, while several additional states are recommending local districts keep schools closed.
For many parents, the prospect of two more months of working from home while also making sure their children remain focused on their studies and don’t slide into depression is daunting. In many cases, students are receiving extra credit for their work rather than actual grades — a move encouraged by the state in recognition that not all children can connect to the Web at home, but one that can also chip away at a student’s motivation to do the work.
Eugenia Corbo, whose two children attend the East Boston Early Education Center, said working from home has been “insanity.” Corbo, who works as an editor for an educational publisher, has had to jump off Zoom calls when her 4-year-old son threw a temper tantrum. A summer camp she booked for her daughter in August canceled due to the crisis.
“It’s unsustainable,” she said, even as she tried to remain positive about navigating the rest of the spring and summer until school reopens.
Some parents worried how the loss of in-person class time will hurt their children’s academic progress. Jerry Reilly, whose daughter will be a senior at Newton South High School in September, praised the work of teachers and administrators for continuing to educate students. But if the remote program continues, students need more time in class or they risk falling behind.
“Overall, my feeling about the amount of time my daughter is spending on education is a fraction of what it would be in a classroom,” Reilly said. “If education is not going to suffer, they will need to address that.”
Elise Person, whose 8-year-old son is a third-grader at the Burr Elementary School, said she was not surprised the governor extended the order.
“Saving lives matters, and as much as it stinks to stay at home, as much as what he is missing out on . . . this is a civic duty for the well-being of the nation and the world,” Person said.
State officials also announced on Tuesday that they would be updating remote learning guidelines in an effort to ramp up academic offerings at home.
“We want to minimize learning loss as much as possible,” said Jeffrey C. Riley, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, during the governor’s press conference. “I hope everyone will continue to work with their students to do the best they can on remote learning.”
Closing schools and shifting to remote learning is one of two historic moves in education brought about by the pandemic. Earlier this month, Riley canceled MCAS testing for the first time in the history of the 22-year-old exams.
Employers across the state are bracing themselves for the likelihood that worker productivity will continue to take a hit as many parents balance their daily workloads with overseeing their children’s education.
“We’re not going to force anybody to come back in,” said Jo Deal, chief human resource officer at Boston-based tech firm LogMeIn, who is working from home with two school-aged children.
Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, which had been urging Baker to keep schools closed, said the governor made the right call.
“It was a necessary decision to protect the health of our communities across the state,” Najimy said in a statement, noting the state and districts need to assess how well or not remote learning is working. “We also need to work together to figure out how to provide extra support for high-need students."
Burlington Superintendent Eric Conti said he worried about the stamina of teachers, many of whom have their own children or are contending with illness at home. Many teachers have “never worked harder,” said Conti. “Asking people to keep practicing in this way is asking a lot.”
When students do return to brick and mortar schools, teachers will have to spend time transitioning them back into school, said Conti, adding “their worlds have changed and we’ll have to spend time reassuring them."
John Hilliard, Tim Logan, Matt Stout, Travis Andersen, and Martin Finucane of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
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