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Gov. Baker Pushes Back On Pressure To Allow Remote Learning, Increased Mask Guidance

BOSTON (CBS) - With Omicron cases remaining at a peak, Governor Baker and the Department of Education are facing pressure to ease the rules for in-person learning.

Specifically, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state's biggest teachers' union, is demanding the Department of Education be more flexible in allowing schools to use remote learning days on an as-needed basis. "The Department needs to be flexible to allow remote learning when a district deems that it is absolutely necessary for a temporary period of time," explained President Merrie Najimy.

In a press conference Tuesday, Governor Baker stayed firm in his decision: remote learning is not an option. The state does not allow remote learning days to count towards the 180 required days of school.

2020-2021 "was a very bad year," the Governor said. "We should be doing everything we can to be sure that kids get that 180 days of in person learning, because it's critically important not just to their educational development but their development, period."

Baker was also grilled by lawmakers as he testified on the state's COVID response in a virtual hearing. Senator Joanne Comerford, the Chairperson of the Joint Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management, asked the Governor why the state has not implemented guidance for the type of mask to be worn in schools: to upgrade to medical-style masks like KN95s or N95s. "I have to say that every respected public health voice in America says that schools for the most part are low transmission operations," Governor Baker responded, avoiding the direct question.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education did recently extend the in school mask mandate for all students and staff, through February 28.

But according to Tufts Medical Center epidemiologist Dr. Shira Doron, a "mandate" for medical grade masks would be a wrong move for the state and for schools. "If families or children want to wear KN95s or N95s, and they can actually tolerate them all day, sure. The whole idea behind upping your mask game, is that you don't need to care what anyone else is doing," she explained. "N95s and mandate, those two words together, are an oxymoron. The whole idea is that you don't need to mandate. That you are protecting yourself."

Additionally, Dr. Doron says there is no evidence that sending kids to remote learning would make any kind of dent in the Omicron surge. "I'm not saying there is no transmission in school, but there is little enough that it won't move the needle," she said. "School is essential," she added. "It is absolutely essential. There's no question that the best and safest place for children to be is in school…[remote learning] was not part of pandemic planning. This is not what we did during H1N1, when [kids] were at greater danger than they are from COVID-19."

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