In another push to bring more Massachusetts students back to school in person, Governor Charlie Baker on Thursday visited a Carlisle school and praised the youngsters for all wearing masks, which he said made them “a lot more mature than many of the adults I know.”
Baker, speaking to reporters following a tour of the K-8 Carlisle public school, also praised staff for working to ensure there was enough distance between students, particularly at lunch, which the children eat in four separate shifts, some in the cafeteria and some in their classrooms.
As he has for some time, Baker reiterated that in-person learning is vitally important for students especially in the younger grades, and that studies have shown schools aren’t hot spots for COVID-19 transmissions.
Rather, Baker said, the biggest trouble spots appear to be “familiar people being familiar” with one another “in familiar settings,” such as dinner parties and other informal gatherings.
Baker’s visit came less than a week after he and other state education officials changed the guidelines for school districts to decide when to offer in-person learning. The new rules discourage remote learning, except in situations when there is coronavirus transmission happening within school buildings.
Previous state guidance encouraged school districts to utilize their community’s coronavirus positivity rate to determine whether in-person school was a safe option, but districts have now been told to close schools and classrooms only as a “last resort.”
State education officials had, until this week, said the state wasn’t aware of any coronavirus transmission in Massachusetts schools, though Baker indicated on Thursday that one incident may have occurred.
There have been “very small numbers with respect to infections, and none of which, for the most part, originated in the schools, and I think maybe one example of an in-school transmission, maybe not even,” Baker said, trailing off as he turned to Education Commissioner Jeff Riley for confirmation. Baker did not say where that potential transmission took place.
About 450,000 students in Massachusetts are attending some form of in-person learning, and about 75,000 staff members are working from school buildings. As of Nov. 4, 743 cases among Massachusetts students and 416 among staff members have been reported by local school officials to the state.
The governor on Thursday said he enjoyed watching one student work out a complex math problem during the tour, calling it a “reminder about why finding a way to get kids back in a classroom can be so powerful for them and for their classmates.”
He also said Massachusetts is “nowhere near” where it was at the height of the outbreak in the spring, when some 5,500 people were hospitalized and the state could only perform between 2,000 and 3,000 tests daily.
Now, Baker said, 550 people are in the hospital, and the state’s processing between 80,000 and 100,000 tests each day.
He added that the healthcare community is much better prepared to manage issues surrounding the virus, and officials will have more to say Friday about the planned opening of temporary field hospitals around the state to help medical facilities deal with surge capacity, should that be necessary. Multiple field hospitals were up and running last spring.
Baker also touched on a new compact between the New England governors to develop a set of protocols for safely conducting youth hockey games, which have emerged as a trouble spot for community spread of the virus.
That’s due mainly, Baker said, to the fact that parents and kids have been socializing largely without masks during all-day weekend tournaments.
The hockey collaboration with the other states, Baker said, will “have everybody playing across the region with the same set of rules and guidelines.”
Baker’s words were echoed by New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu in a separate statement.
“Given the support for this agreement from our regional neighbors, New Hampshire made the practical decision to join this effort,” Sununu said. “We remain optimistic that our newly issued Hockey and Ice Arena guidance will continue to ensure a safe and successful hockey season for New Hampshire hockey players.”