BOSTON — On Sunday, the Baker-Polito administration announced a three-week suspension of school operations for educational purposes at all public and private elementary and secondary schools in the Commonwealth beginning Tuesday, March 17, and a series of new guidance and legislation in response to COVID-19, including a ban on gatherings of more than 25 people.
“Our administration is taking these rapid steps to protect the health and safety of our residents to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” Gov. Charlie Baker said. “We know that a lot of the measures we are putting into place, including mandatory school closures and prohibiting gatherings of 25 people or more, will cause disruption in people’s day-to-day lives. With the steps we are taking today, we can ensure residents can still access key state services while taking necessary precautions to limit the spread of COVID-19.”
The suspension of educational programming will not necessarily affect the availability of school buildings for the provision of food or other essential non-educational services. As April 6 — the first weekday following the three-week closing — approaches, the administration will provide additional guidance.
During this period, the administration notes, it is critical that students and their families, as well as school staff, stay home as much as possible. If an individual needs to leave home, it is essential to strictly follow social-distancing guidelines by avoiding crowds, canceling social gatherings, and maintaining a safe separation of at least six feet from others. Restricting access to school buildings will have little impact on public health if these best practices are not followed in good faith.
Although schools must suspend in-person educational operations, staff should be planning for how best to equitably provide alternative access to student learning opportunities during this period and potentially beyond. Equally important, school personnel should develop plans for ensuring to the greatest extent possible that families have access to essential non-academic services for their children — especially involving special-education and food services for students who are most vulnerable.
The suspension of educational operations at K-12 schools will inevitably affect the provision of preschool and childcare services. Although the state is not ordering the closure of childcare programs at this time, it is strongly urging childcare providers to strictly observe guidelines that are being issued by the Department of Early Education and Care (EEC) and the Department of Public Health (DPH), which call for temporary closures based on actual direct or indirect exposures to individuals with COVID-19.
At the same time, EEC will prioritize the maintenance and expansion of childcare capacity serving frontline healthcare workers and first responders across the state.
With regard to higher education, the Department of Higher Education and DPH strongly recommend that colleges and universities, both public and private, continue to pursue strategies to reduce the need for students to be on campus, including suspending in-person classes and implementing institution-wide programs to shift to remote learning, technology-enabled solutions, and other tools to allow students to successfully complete course and degree requirements. Institutions should also pursue strategies to reduce the need for faculty and staff to be on campus by maximizing remote work opportunities, while maintaining essential on-campus services, especially for residential students who cannot safely return home. Additional guidance will be forthcoming.
Baker also issued an emergency order limiting gatherings to no more than 25 individuals and prohibiting on-premises consumption of food or drink at bars and restaurants, beginning on March 17 and effective until April 6.
Meanwhile, DPH issued guidance today that includes the following:
• All commercial insurers, self-insured plans, and the Group Insurance Commission are required to cover medically necessary telehealth services related to COVID-19 testing and treatment. Insurers must do this without requiring cost sharing of any kind — such as co-pays and coinsurance — for testing and treatment. Additionally, insurers cannot require prior authorization for these services.
• All assisted-living residences are to ban visitors to protect the health of residents and staff. This is in addition to the federal guidance issued on Friday that bans visitors to nursing homes and rest homes.
• All hospitals operated by the Department of Public Health or the Department of Mental Health are to screen all visitors and restrict visitation if individuals show any indication of illness. In addition, hospitals must cancel non-essential elective procedures.