Governor Baker Announces Reopening of Additional Phase 4 Industries to Go Into Effect May 10th

Today, the Baker-Polito Administration announced that Massachusetts will move forward in the Commonwealth’s reopening plan to reopen certain outdoor Phase 4 industries effective May 10th, as previously announced. The Administration continues to take steps to reopen the Commonwealth’s economy with public health metrics continuing to trend in a positive direction.

On March 22, Massachusetts loosened restrictions and advanced to Phase IV of the Commonwealth’s reopening plan. Since then, daily new COVID-19 cases have dropped by 45%, hospitalizations have dropped by 23%, and deaths have dropped by 69%. All these metrics have dropped by around 80% or more since the beginning of the year. The Commonwealth also remains a national leader in COVID-19 vaccinations, and over 3.9 million people are fully or partially vaccinated, and Massachusetts is on track to meet its goal of vaccinating over 4 million people by the beginning of June.

Effective Monday, May 10th:

The Commonwealth will reopen certain outdoor Phase 4 industries.

Amusement parks, theme parks and outdoor water parks will be permitted to operate at a 50% capacity after submitting safety plans to the Department of Public Health.

Road races and other large, outdoor organized amateur or professional group athletic events will be permitted to take place with staggered starts and other appropriate safety measures after submitting safety plans to a local board of health or the DPH.

Additionally, large capacity venues such as indoor and outdoor stadiums, arenas and ballparks currently open at 12% capacity as part of Phase 4, Step 1 will be permitted to increase capacity to 25%.

Youth and adult amateur sports tournaments will be allowed for moderate and high-risk sports.

Singing will also be permitted indoors with strict distancing requirements at performance venues, restaurants, event venues and other businesses.

Grocery stores and retail stores with a pharmacy department should consider dedicated hours of operation for seniors, but will no longer be required to offer senior hours.

Additional Changes Anticipated to be Effective Saturday, May 29th:

Contingent on continued positive trends in the public health and vaccination data, on May 29th, additional sectors will be permitted to re-open and gathering limits will increase to 200 people indoors and 250 people outdoors for event venues, public settings and private settings.

The additional sectors that will be permitted to open include:

Parades, street festivals and agricultural festivals, after submitting safety plans to the local board of health including measures for maintaining social distance, staffing and operations plans and hygiene and cleaning protocols.

Bars, beer gardens, breweries, wineries and distilleries, which will be subject to restaurant rules with seated service only, a 90 minute limit and no dance floors.

Subject to public health and vaccination data, the restaurant guidance will be updated to eliminate the requirement that food be served with alcohol and to increase the maximum table size to 10.

Last week, the Administration also relaxed the Face Coverings Order for some outdoor settings and announced further reopening plans for August 1st.

For more information, visit mass.gov/reopening.




Massachusetts State Police to investigate New Bedford Councilor Dunn’s car accident

By Brendan Kurie
New Bedford Guide Contributor

A Massachusetts State Trooper will be investigating a three-car accident involving Ward 3 City Councilor Hugh Dunn, according to Bristol County District Attorney spokesman Gregg Miliote.

The DA’s office spoke with the New Bedford police and were provided investigative materials, Miliote said.

On Thursday night, Mayor Jon Mitchell mentioned the DA’s investigation to WJAR-TV on Thursday in his first public comments on the incident, when he questioned why Dunn wasn’t subject to a field sobriety test.

“That’s a legitimate question to be raised, and the district attorney will make sure that investigation is run the ground,” Mitchell told WJAR. “It is concerning that there wasn’t a field sobriety test, so the police department is looking at exactly why that wasn’t done.”
Dunn wasn’t cited or arrested following a three-car accident on South Water Street around 1:30 a.m. Saturday. Dunn’s vehicle struck two unoccupied, parked cars before coming to a stop a short distance away. He told police in a statement that he was coming from a late dinner downtown and had taken Benadryl due to allergies from a new dog.

The responding officer said he did not see any signs of alcohol consumption in Dunn, although he was disoriented.

“The NBPD is now working in cooperation with the Bristol County District Attorney’s Office to assist in the review of the May 1 incident involving New Bedford Councilor Hugh Dunn,” Acting Chief Paul Oliveira said in a statement. “Our priority is to conduct a thorough review of all evidence.”




New Bedford High School Graduation Rate Soars to 90% – Highest Since State Tracking Began and a 30-Point Jump in 10 Years

New Bedford High School’s 2020 four-year cohort graduation rate has increased to 90%, a historic increase that marks a nearly 30-percentage point increase since 2010, based on the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s (DESE) recent reporting on statewide graduation rates.

New Bedford High School’s four-year cohort graduation rate of 90% in 2020 – an increase of nearly 30 percentage points, from 61.4% in 2010. The total four-year graduation rate has increased over 32 percentage points, from 55.8% in 2010 to 88.1% in 2020. The 2020 four-year cohort graduation rate was 90%, a 7.5% increase from the previous year. The 2020 dropout rate was just 2.1%, down from a high of 9% in 2009. While MCAS was not included as a graduation requirement in 2020, it was only one metric of several and appears to have had little impact on graduation rates; most schools’ graduation rates did not experience significant increases or changes. New Bedford High School’s graduation rate has improved consistently for the past consecutive nine years.

A milestone for New Bedford High School and the district

News of the graduation rate marks an important point in New Bedford High’s history. In 2011, a report by DESE identified problem areas, among them struggles with attendance, graduation, and retention, given the high school’s low graduation rate. The school was designated as “underperforming,” resulting in monitoring by the state of the school and the district. In 2012, a major reform effort began, and thanks to years of hard work by the city’s teachers, school staff, school- and district-level administrators, students in New Bedford have made significant gains over the past nine years. Student test scores have increased, a strategic plan for continuous improvement is in place for the district, and the district’s success has been recognized.

In 2017, given the enormous progress made by New Bedford Public Schools, including the beginning of this increase in the high school graduation rate, state officials declared New Bedford “an extremely different district” than it had been at the start of monitoring in 2011. Citing “great strides to address the systemic concerns raised in the 2011 review,” and “effective processes in place in order to continue meaningful improvement,” the district was released from state monitoring in 2017. Since that time, New Bedford High School’s graduation rate has continued to increase, as have test scores, and participation and success in Advanced Placement (AP) courses and college admissions successes.

Focus on equity: ensuring success for all students – EL graduation rate up 56 points since 2014

A critical component of success for New Bedford High School and the district has been ensuring success for all students through a lens of equity, since the start of the district’s reform efforts nearly nine years ago. A focus on accurate and adequate identification of English Learners (EL) students, who had not been properly identified in the district before school improvement efforts began, led to a significant increase in English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers. Among EL students, the graduation rate has also soared a staggering 56 percentage points in the past six years alone– from a four-year graduation rate of 29.2% in 2014 to 85.1% in 2020.

Focus on success for all students has been seen at the high school and across the district. In 2020, the James B. Congdon Elementary School was recognized as a 2020 National Blue Ribbon School by the United States Department of Education – one of just six such schools in Massachusetts and the only one outside an affluent suburb – and has been designated a statewide School of Recognition by DESE for the past two years. Congdon’s student body includes 34% of students designated as ELs.

School leaders expressed pride at the overall increase in New Bedford High School’s Advanced Placement participation rate from 45.5% in 2019 to 51.3% in 2020. English Learner (EL) students saw strong growth for the third consecutive year increasing from 66.7% in 2019 to 81.3% in 2020.

Superintendent Thomas Anderson stated, “This is excellent progress and clearly shows that when we invest in our students the possibilities are endless. New Bedford High School continues to show significant growth with more students graduating to what is now an all-time high – 90%. On a daily basis our students have demonstrated their ability to grasp rigorous subject matter and meet high academic expectations. We believe in them, and most importantly, they believe in themselves. New Bedford High School is delivering on its pledge of excellence – to foster critical thinkers who are college and career ready in the digital age. The staff is to be commended for this milestone.”

Mayor Jon Mitchell said, “In 2011, the New Bedford Public Schools were placed under state monitoring and were threatened with full state receivership, due in no small part to the low graduation rate at New Bedford High School. In my campaign for mayor that year, I said that the graduation rate was unacceptable, and that although it would take time, we would not allow the doors of opportunity to be closed to our city’s schoolchildren. It has not been easy along the way, but today’s announcement shows that major reform in urban public education can be achieved with an unwavering, long term commitment to higher standards.”

Such achievement would not be possible without strong leadership, and Mayor Mitchell recognized Superintendent Thomas Anderson and his team for their tireless and sharp focus on improving student achievement for all of New Bedford’s children, including significant gains under the Superintendent’s leadership, and Headmaster Bernadette Coelho and her team for their commitment to working with students to ensure every New Bedford High School graduate is primed for success.

The Mayor recognized his colleagues on the School Committee for their continued dedication to prioritizing the advancement of New Bedford’s students, and their support, which has set the right conditions for significant advancement by the district. He also thanked those who have worked toward the end of maximizing opportunity for New Bedford’s schoolchildren, including former district leadership and staff over the last decade that began this successful reform effort.

Mayor Mitchell, who serves as ex-officio Chairman of the School Committee, also singled out the role that education advocates played in turning the city’s attention toward improving student outcomes in New Bedford Public Schools before he took office, including the New Bedford Education Roundtable, which was chaired by former NAACP of New Bedford President Bruce Rose. The Mayor cited the impact of consistent media scrutiny and thanked Bob Unger, former editor of The Standard-Times, for his dedication of resources and energy to draw attention to the issue of education reform.

Mr. Unger said, “These remarkable gains are the result of the steady commitment of the Mayor, Superintendent, School Committee, business and nonprofit leaders, teachers and principals, parents and children. This shows what happens when we work together to raise expectations for all our children, who will be prepared to contribute to their neighborhoods and their city and to lead happier, healthier, more fulfilling lives. It gives me such hope for the future of our city. I also am proud of the role The Standard-Times has played in reporting on public education and in advocating for improvement.”

Headmaster Bernadette Coelho, said, “Getting to 90% has required building an enhanced scaffold of supports and programming that not only assists students throughout their four years but also enhances their academic and social experience. It is designed to appeal to them to want to be here and to actively participate.

“The hallmark of supporting our students is that every effort is highly personalized. From the first day they walk in as freshmen to the day they cross Walsh Field as graduates, they have had a designated support team of educators and staff that follows each of them throughout their four years. This is deep work; it involves constant interaction with students, including teachers knocking on doors when necessary.

“Frankly, MCAS is only one marker; our students must meet all of our local and state requirements for a diploma, demonstrating competency in rigorous coursework. In our regular meetings with DESE, the data shows that NBHS’ progress and the numbers speak to the level of work we are doing here. We are gaining momentum, with new and enhanced programs such as the Academy of Honors, the NAF career academies, and full open access.

“Our commitment as a team is to work personally with every student to see them through to graduation and be ready for the next opportunity on their continued journey. It is the hard work and perseverance of our students with the ongoing support of teachers, staff and families, that makes this happen. I could not be prouder of our New Bedford High School students.”




Healey Will Require Some AG Employees to Be Vaccinated

By Chris Lisinski
State House News Service

Attorney General Maura Healey on Wednesday defended her call for mandating COVID-19 vaccines among public employees as a “matter of common sense,” urged state and federal lawmakers to pursue a “systemic” overhaul of child care, and criticized President Joe Biden’s campaign goal of forgiving $10,000 per person in student loans as insufficient.

In a wide-ranging discussion with business leaders, Healey also hinted at additional legal action her office could take against opioid manufacturers and urged employers to take a stand in favor of securing voting rights.

Healey, whose office confirmed Wednesday that she will require some of her staffers to get vaccinated when they return to in-person, public-facing work, reiterated her stance that some public-sector employees such as corrections officers and state police should be required to receive COVID-19 vaccinations.

Asked during a question-and-answer session with the New England Council how state officials could enforce such a requirement, Healey said she views the mandate as “common sense” for employees who regularly interact with the public as a function of their jobs, and pointed to other required vaccinations.

“We require flu shots, we require certain vaccinations, we require hep B shots if you work in a hospital,” Healey said. “People have suffered so much, and we know — I believe in science and data, I’m listening to the people at the CDC, I’m listening to the public health experts. To me, it’s a wartime effort and everybody’s got to step in and do their part, and doing your part means getting vaccinated.”

In a statement to the News Service after the Wednesday morning event, Healey spokesperson Emalie Gainey said the attorney general will implement a similar policy in her own office once employees are no longer remote.

“AG Healey believes everyone eligible for a vaccine should get one, and is encouraged by the millions in Massachusetts doing their part at clinics across the state,” Gainey said. “Again, it is her personal policy view that vaccines should be required for certain state employees that interact with the public on a daily basis to help prevent the spread of the virus. While her office is still operating on a remote basis, she has encouraged staff to get the vaccine, pending any exemptions, and will require vaccinations for employees who have regular interaction with the public when we return back to the office.”

Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, who has repeatedly urged people to get vaccinated, opposes the idea of requiring state employees to get a COVID-19 vaccine. On Monday, he said he prefers to focus on communicating the vaccine’s efficacy and expanding access.

“The idea that I would kick somebody out of a job — and especially in the kind of economy we have now — because, quote unquote, they wouldn’t get vaccinated right away on an EUA-approved vaccine … No. I’m not gonna play that game,” Baker said Monday.

Healey, a Democrat who pundits have watched as a possible gubernatorial candidate, said there could be legally protected exemptions for public employees for reasons such as disability or religious belief. State workers who refuse to be vaccinated should be handled on a “case-by-case” basis, she said.

Healey cited the frequent calls for widespread vaccinations from national experts such as National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci and CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky.

“There’s something real about vaccine hesitancy and I want to acknowledge that. People are scared. Now there’s information coming out about vaccines for kids 12 to 15 or under 12,” she said. “I get that fear, and I get the history of vaccinations, particularly as it relates to communities of color and the fear there, but I think that’s something we’ve got to address with more education and more personal dialogue about things.”

“I don’t want to diminish people’s genuine concern and fear, but I trust Fauci, I trust MGH’s own Rochelle Walensky, who’s now heading the CDC,” Healey added. “I mean, science, you know? I feel like this is the way to go and a path to a quicker resumption of regular life.”

In March, days before Healey first said she believes vaccines should be mandatory for some public employees, declared Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Downing called for all state police, first responders and teachers to become vaccinated. Unlike Healey, Downing said specifically that he believes any of those public-sector employees who refuse a shot should not be allowed to remain on the job.

Her prepared remarks to the council focused on three main topics: opioid use, child care and voting rights.

As Healey noted, the pandemic has thrust early education and child care into the spotlight, forcing many parents to grapple with day care and school closures. Center-based care for infants costs an average of $21,000 per year in Massachusetts, Healey said, the second-highest average cost in the country behind Washington, D.C.

She told the council, whose members employ many of the people who are juggling work and home life responsibilities, that high costs of care are an untenable burden for many parents and are disproportionately keeping more women out of the workforce.

“What became immediately apparent to me is that the only real solution has to be a systemic one,” she said. “For all of us, the pandemic has brought out of the shadows a system that requires too much of parents and pays too little to educators.”

The crisis has prompted renewed debate on how the state and country should structure child care systems. Supporters of universal early education say it will improve outcomes for children while simultaneously giving families more financial stability and ability to work.

But those reforms will be costly. The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center estimated in a recent report that offering universal, high-quality and affordable early education and child care in the state would cost more than $5 billion.

Biden’s $1.8 trillion proposal unveiled last week, which he dubbed the “American Families Plan,” would spend $200 billion to make free, universal preschool available to all 3- and 4-year-olds and $225 billion more to increase industry pay and make care more affordable for families.

At the state level, Senate President Karen Spilka has challenged providers, employers and lawmakers to partner on a “moonshot” to reform intergenerational care across Massachusetts.

Healey, who joined other attorneys general in July 2020 to call for $50 billion more in national child care funding, said Wednesday that she believes Americans should recognize child care as “an essential part of public infrastructure.”

“While there are some reforms we can make and have made, it also requires new investment,” she said. “This is an investment that will pay off. For every dollar invested in early childhood education, it’s yielding between $4 and $16 in returns. That’s a pretty good investment. I’m talking about increased high school graduation and college matriculation rates. I’m talking about higher personal earnings. I’m talking about decreased spending in special education, social welfare, decreased spending in the criminal justice system.”

Her remarks to business leaders on Wednesday opened with a warning that the opioid epidemic has “gotten worse” during the COVID-19 crisis, even as some public attention has been absorbed by other pressing health needs.

Healey cited data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control showing that more than 90,000 Americans died of drug overdoses from September 2019 to September 2020, a nearly 30 percent increase from the prior year. About 70 percent of those deaths were opioid-related.

“The isolation, the stress, the mental health strains brought on by COVID require us to build back our progress and to find ways to get more communities the support they need,” Healey said. “COVID resulted in job loss, economic stress, housing instability — it’s put so many people at risk of substance use and relapse and pushed so many people, understandably, over the edge.”

She praised the Biden administration for including $4 billion in the American Rescue Plan stimulus package to expand substance use disorder and mental health supports, and she called for additional changes to prescribing practices to help prevent addiction from taking hold.

In recent years, Healey pursued legal action against the Sackler family, who control Purdue Pharma, and against consulting firm McKinsey over their role in marketing and selling drugs such as OxyContin that fueled the opioid addiction crisis.

“I will tell you, there are further actions soon to come,” she said Wednesday.

In February, Healey and 16 other attorneys general urged Congress to push Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student debt held by every student loan borrower via executive action.

On the campaign trail and in his early weeks in office, Biden indicated interest in eliminating $10,000 of student debt per person but questioned whether he has the authority to wipe out up to $50,000.

Healey on Wednesday called the roughly $1.7 trillion in student loan debt across America “a huge albatross” that prevents people from saving for retirement and purchasing homes.

“The plan put out that allowed forgiveness for up to $50,000 was a plan that was actually sensible and targeted to making a meaningful difference. Forgiving $10,000 isn’t going to move the needle on that,” Healey said. “We’ve got to get real and bite the bullet and just forgive certain debt.”

Some opponents have said that eliminating that much debt before it is paid back would be unfair to borrowers who already repaid their full balances, an argument with which Healey disagreed.

“I know it’s a line-drawing and some people are going to fall on this side and some people are going to fall on that side. I do not believe, though, that it encourages or rewards people for not paying their loans,” she said. “That’s not what I see in my office, and I’ve got a student loan assistance unit that every year is working through thousands of complaints. These are people who tried to pay their loans and for one reason or another, sometimes based on the terms of their loans or they shouldn’t have received them in the first place, aren’t able to.”




Pandemic cited in push for immigration-related bills

By Chris Lisinski
State House News Service

Labor and immigrant rights leaders have had little success convincing Democratic leaders to pursue their immigration priority reforms in recent years, but they are hopeful that substantial legislative support on two high-profile bills forecasts action this session.

A bill that would allow undocumented immigrants in Massachusetts to acquire standard driver’s licenses now sports 101 co-sponsors, just more than half of the Legislature’s 200 sitting members and an increase of 17 from last session. Another proposal to limit police interactions with federal immigration enforcement has 93 co-sponsors, down slightly from the 97 last session.

Republicans and some law enforcement officials have opposed both proposals, and legislative leaders have mostly avoided bringing either forward for a full floor vote.

Buoyed by the rising number of lawmakers on board with the licensing bill, activists with the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition on Tuesday pitched it as an important public health and equity measure amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Allowing the state’s roughly 200,000 undocumented immigrants to becomme eligible to acquire driver’s licenses, they said, will help them access critical services without facing transmission risks.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, denying driving privilege to immigrants without status forces workers to take crowded public transportation or to share crowded rides,” Dalida Rocha, political director for 32BJ SEIU, said during a virtual advocacy day MIRA hosted. “Without the ability to drive, many immigrants outside of greater Boston can’t get tested or vaccinated. They can’t protect their families, themselves and their communities.”

The licensing bill earned vocal praise from Senate President Karen Spilka last session and cleared the Transportation Committee by a party-line 14-4 vote, but it died in the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

When bill authors unveiled the latest version of their proposal (H 3456 / S 2289) in February, they attributed its demise last session to the pandemic’s disruption.

The current version of the bill — which now features an emergency preamble explicitly citing COVID-19 — has 20 co-sponsors in the Senate and 81 in the House.

House Speaker Ronald Mariano, in his first term wielding the speaker’s gavel, gave supporters a glimmer of hope about the bill’s fate in March. “I recognize the value in bringing all drivers under the same public safety, licensing and insurance structures,” Mariano said in a statement at the time, stopping short of explicitly endorsing the proposal.

Activists also continue to push for creation of a legal firewall between local law enforcement and federal authorities such as the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency.

The bill (H 2418 / S 1579), which supporters dub the “Safe Communities Act,” would prohibit police and court officials from asking about someone’s immigration status unless required by law, plus bar them from notifying ICE about an individual’s pending release from custody unless the person is completing incarceration.

Rep. Ruth Balser, a Newton Democrat and an author of the legislation, said Tuesday that she hopes President Joe Biden’s first few months in office will motivate state lawmakers to “lead the way” on immigration reforms.

She, too, pitched the bill as a way to protect public health.

“The Safe Communities Act would make sure that people in the immigrant community wouldn’t have to worry about getting tested for COVID,” Balser said. “They wouldn’t have to worry to go and get their vaccination. They wouldn’t have to worry that someone’s going to talk to ICE and let them know something about themself or someone in their family. We want people to feel safe, so we want to pass a bill that says there will be no local or state involvement with federal immigration enforcement.”

“This is the session we’re going to get it done,” Balser later added.

Boston Mayor Kim Janey threw her support behind both bills Tuesday, calling the immigration enforcement restriction “critical to vaccine equity and equity in general” during MIRA’s virtual advocacy day event.

“Fear of being detained or questioned without proper consent has actually kept some of our immigrant community away from getting the life-saving vaccine, and we cannot have that happen,” Janey said.

Longtime opponents of the bill include the Massachusetts Republican Party and Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson. In January 2020, when the Public Safety Committee heard testimony on a prior version of the legislation, Hodgson said that limiting cooperation between Massachusetts police and federal authorities could create safety risks.

In 2018, the Senate voted 25-13 to adopt an amendment similar to the so-called Safe Communities Act in its fiscal year 2019 budget bill. The provision did not survive budget negotiations with the House.

The Public Safety Committee favorably reported a version of the bill in 2020 without disclosing the vote margin, but it did not advance beyond the Ways and Means Committees.

Republican Gov. Charlie Baker opposes both the enforcement and licensing bills, so Democrats would likely need to line up a two-thirds majority to overturn any prospective veto if they plan to advance the bills this session.




Massachusetts: Chronic Absenteeism Rate Rose in Disrupted School Year

By Katie Lannan
State House News Service

New statewide school attendance data show the percentage of students deemed chronically absent was up so far this pandemic-disrupted school year, as compared to the last three academic years, with rates soaring among English learners, economically disadvantaged students, and students with disabilities.

Seventeen percent of Massachusetts students have been categorized as chronically absent — meaning they missed 10 percent or more of their enrolled school days — through March of the 2020-2021 school year, according to Department of Elementary and Secondary Education numbers updated Friday.

With a statewide enrollment total of 911,465 students, that figure works out to more than 154,000 students absent for 10 percent or more of their school days.

Through March 2 of last year, 13 percent of students were chronically absent students, and the percentage hovered near that point in the 2018-2019 (12.9 percent) and 2017-2018 (13.2 percent) school years.

The average number of absences per student so far this year sits at six, close to the 5.7 recorded last year and below the 9.6 from 2018-2019, the last school year not disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Schooling in Massachusetts — as in other places across the country and the globe — has been transformed by COVID-19, creating new challenges for students, families and educators.

School buildings throughout the state shuttered in March 2020, forcing an abrupt and experimental transition to remote learning amid a public health crisis that threw much of daily life into disarray.

When the new school year began in the fall, some districts remained fully remote while others brought back in-person learning part-time or full-time. More students have returned to classrooms throughout the year, and as of April 27, 146 districts were fully in-person for grades K-12.

Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeff Riley this spring set deadlines for districts that had not already done so to phase out remote learning. Except for cases where the state approved waivers, elementary and middle schoolers were due back in classrooms in April, and May 17 is the date for high schoolers.

“Absenteeism is one of the challenges that has prompted the Department to urge and require school districts to provide in-person learning,” Colleen Quinn, a spokesperson for the Executive Office of Education, said in a statement to the News Service. “While school committees set policies related to attendance, and parents and school districts have the primary responsibility for attendance of individual students, the Department recognizes chronic absenteeism as an important element of all school districts’ accountability measurements, and uses the data in combination with other indicators to make determinations as to which school districts need more assistance and involvement from DESE.”

Remote instruction means students don’t have to worry about inclement weather, missing a bus or having a parent available to take them to school. It also lacks the engagement with peers and teachers that comes along with in-person classes and can present new obstacles to participation, like a lack of reliable internet or quiet workspace, or a need to oversee a younger sibling’s schoolwork.

Families are able to choose to have their students continue remote learning for the rest of the school year, and state guidance requires that students who are learning remotely have a daily opportunity to interact with a teacher. The latest updates to that guidance require a visual component as part of the daily live check-in, using videoconferencing or other methods of seeing students.

“Schools and districts need to assess how to use video conferencing in a way that is respectful of individual student’s needs,” the guidance says. “For example, if a student is reluctant to be seen in their home by classmates, a teacher might meet with the student in a breakout room with a virtual background for a short period of time to conduct the live check-in. In situations where the district or school has concerns about a student’s attendance or level of engagement, they should employ additional levels of support to re-engage the student.”

Along with new efforts around keeping students engaged in learning, this school year has presented districts — and state and local budget-writers — with new questions around enrollment numbers. Largely driven by declines in pre-K and kindergarten, the state’s 400 school districts experienced an enrollment decline of more than 30,000 students this year, and it’s unclear exactly how many will return to their public school systems in the fall.

Statewide, the 2020-2021 attendance rate stands at 94 percent, down from last year’s 94.7 percent and the 94.6 percent recorded in each of the previous two years. The number of students with more than nine days of unexcused absences this year is 3.9 percent, down from 6.8 percent in 2019-2020 and 16.7 percent in the 2018-2019 school year.

Attendance and absenteeism figures vary by district, and across student subgroups.

This year’s chronic absenteeism percentage is higher among students who are economically disadvantaged (29.6 percent, from 21.5 percent last year), English learners (29.6 percent, from 19.5 percent last year) and students with disabilities (26.3 percent, from 19.9 percent last year) than the statewide 17 percent.

That figure also varies by race and ethnicity — 6.8 percent of Asian students, 12.7 percent of white students, 23.9 percent of African American and Black students and 28 percent of Hispanic/Latino students fall into the chronically absent category.

Among the largest school districts, the department’s data show 26.7 percent of Boston’s 48,112 students are chronically absent, along with 23.2 percent of Springfield’s 24,239 students, 21.7 percent of Worcester’s 23,986 and 21.1 percent of Lynn’s 15,587.

The chronically absent percentage differs across the three districts under state receivership — 46.2 percent in Southbridge, 39.1 percent in Holyoke and 18.6 percent in Lawrence. Districts consisting of one school, like charter or regional schools, land all over the spectrum.

Phoenix Academy Public Charter High School in Lawrence — which aims to serve “resilient, disconnected students” and on its website classifies 33 percent of its students as “formerly truant/dropout” — has a chronically absent rate of 99.4 percent, according to the DESE data, and Learning First Charter Public School in Worcester has a rate of 2.4 percent.

At Nashoba Valley Regional Vocational Technical School in Westford, 1.2 percent of students are chronically absent, and at Ralph C. Mahar Regional School in Orange, 64.9 percent of students meet that description.

State education officials in 2018 added chronic absenteeism as one of the indicators in their updated school and district accountability system.

On March 10, 2020, when Gov. Charlie Baker first declared a state of emergency around COVID-19, officials also announced measures to give districts more flexibility in their response to the public health crisis. For the 2019-2020 school year, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education disregarded attendance data beyond March 2, 2020 for accountability purposes, calculating chronic absenteeism based on numbers up until that date.




Governor Baker pushes for red-light cameras, increased seatbelt use enforcement

By Chris Lisinski
State House News Service

Warning that roadway deaths remained nearly unchanged during the pandemic despite a significant drop in traffic, Gov. Charlie Baker unveiled a suite of safety reforms Monday including red-light cameras, stricter penalties for driving with a suspended license, and increased seatbelt use enforcement.

Baker filed a wide-ranging traffic safety bill (HD 4200), combining new and old proposals aimed at cracking down on motorists who drive dangerously and strengthening the state’s licensing processes.

“This road safety package we’re filing today addresses some of the most pressing issues that are facing commuters, and we are confident that passing this bill will help reduce roadway deaths and injuries and improve our transportation system safety,” he said.

The administration’s latest push for traffic law updates lands in a significantly different environment than some of the provisions Baker targeted last session, altered by the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts on travel patterns across Massachusetts.

The statewide average of vehicle miles traveled, which counts all trips made by motor vehicles, dropped sharply in March 2020 as many businesses either closed or shifted to remote working options, according to Department of Transportation data. Although traffic has rebounded in some areas, the weekday average vehicle miles traveled at the start March 2021 remained about 38 percent lower than before the pandemic.

However, the decline in car travel did not translate into a decline in roadway deaths. Baker said 334 people died on Massachusetts roads over the past year, only two fewer than the 336 in 2019. Most of the crashes in the past year were single-car accidents with speeding as a primary factor, he said.

After implementing new safety laws such as a distracted driving ban that took effect last year, Baker said lawmakers must now step up and do more to protect drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians.

“With more drivers returning to the roads, we need to build on these efforts to keep people safe,” he said.

The bill would give municipalities the option to deploy red-light cameras at chosen intersections. Cameras would take pictures of vehicle license plates if a driver commits a violation such as running a red light or making an illegal turn on red.

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said more than 300 communities in the United States already use red-light cameras and that studies indicate they have been “instrumental in reducing dangerous accidents and roadway deaths.”

“Red-light camera enforcement has been proven again and again to reduce fatal crashes at red lights and pedestrian deaths as well, and allowing communities to use this tool in dangerous intersections will have carryover effects and carryover benefits,” Acting Transportation Secretary Jamey Tesler added. “Studies have shown consistently that drivers tend to run reds at non-camera locations less when other locations have cameras.”

The state Senate last year initiated debate on red-light camera legislation but pulled the bill back after it drew dissent from Republicans and Democrats over privacy violations and the efficacy of camera enforcement.

A newly proposed section in Baker’s bill builds on a 2015 law that requires the Registry of Motor Vehicles to notify police departments when a motorist in their community has had their license suspended. The law is often referred to as “Haley’s Law” in honor of Haley Cremer, who was struck and killed in 2014 by a driver whose license was allegedly suspended at the time.

Current law only penalizes driving with a suspended license, and Baker’s bill would add harsher penalties for driving recklessly, causing serious bodily injury or causing death while a license is suspended.

The bill would impose punishments on three levels of “aggravating factors,” according to Baker’s office: a fine up to $1,000 and up to five years in prison for driving negligently or recklessly on a suspended license, a fine up to $3,000 and two-and-a-half years in a house of correction or five years in prison for causing serious bodily injury, and a fine up to $5,000 and between two and 10 years in prison for causing death.

Marc Cremer, Haley’s father and a vocal advocate for the original legislation, said those who get behind the wheel after their license has been suspended or revoked for a serious offense “are exhibiting a complete and blatant disregard for the laws of the commonwealth and the safety of the community.”

“These offenders need to know the consequences of their actions are going to be severe when they cause bodily injury, serious bodily injury or death,” Cremer said. “If enacting penalties commensurate with the recklessness and negligence of this behavior prevents one crash, and it will, we will save another family — more likely many families — from the horror my wife, daughter and I live with every day.”

Another section of the bill repeats proposed reforms to the commercial driver’s licensing process that Baker and his deputies sought unsuccessfully last session.

The changes would make commercial licenses unavailable to motorists who have had their standard license suspended or have been disqualified from driving in the past three years. It would also increase minimum suspensions from 60 days to 120 days for existing commercial licensees who commit two serious traffic violations in a three-year period and from 120 days to 240 days for those who commit three violations in three years.

The administration first filed the changes in July 2019, after a Massachusetts driver whose commercial license should have been suspended following an arrest in Connecticut allegedly caused a crash in New Hampshire that killed seven motorcyclists. The National Transportation Safety Board probed the incident and concluded last year that a “pickup truck driver under the influence of illicit drugs crossed the centerline of a rural Randolph, New Hampshire, highway June 21, 2019, striking a group of motorcyclists and killing seven of them.”

Lawmakers launched an oversight inquiry into the Registry of Motor Vehicles and its failure to react to the out-of-state alert about the driver, but did not act on Baker’s licensing reforms before the 2019-2020 session ended.

Tesler, who took over as acting registrar in the wake of the New Hampshire crash, said the tragedy “was a moment of truth for me as to the importance of both strong laws and the effective implementation of those laws, but also the tragic impact one driver’s decisions can have on so many other lives.”

Baker’s bill also renews his push to empower police to pull drivers over for failing to use a seatbelt, which is required. Police currently need another reason to stop a motorist and cite them for a seatbelt violation, but the legislation would allow “primary enforcement” of seatbelts without any other condition.

Massachusetts ranks 46th out of 50 states in rate of seatbelt use, according to Highway Safety Division Director Jeff Larason, who added that more than half of the people killed on Bay State roadways were not wearing seatbelts.

States with primary seatbelt laws, which allow police to enforce seatbelt usage without first identifying another violation, have seatbelt use rates an average of 10 to 12 points higher than states with secondary laws like Massachusetts, Larason said.

“This increase in Massachusetts seatbelt use rate, which will come, will translate into saving on average 15 lives a year,” Larason said.

Motorists would also be required under the bill to maintain a “safe passing distance” of three feet between their vehicles and cyclists or pedestrians on stretches of roads without a protected bike lane or curb. Thirty-six other states have a similar mandate in place, according to the Baker administration.

Other reforms include a new requirement for vehicles over 10,000 pounds to install side guards, convex mirrors and cross-over mirrors, additional data collection from motor vehicle crashes, and creation of a working group to study possible regulations on electric scooters.




U.S. surpasses two-thirds of 65+ fully vaccinated

Chris Lisinski
State House News Service

More than four out of five Americans aged 65 and older have received at least one shot against COVID-19 so far, and as of Friday, a full two-thirds of that older population is fully vaccinated against the highly infectious coronavirus, federal health officials announced.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told reporters that 66 percent of the country’s 65-and-older population is now fully vaccinated, representing more than 36 million people who are among those most vulnerable.

“It’s so important that we’re protecting those over age 65,” Walensky said during a press briefing with the White House’s COVID-19 Response Team. “They have borne the brunt of the pandemic and, without a vaccine, are at high risk for severe disease, hospitalization, and death. We are well on our way to have one of our most vulnerable populations fully protected against this deadly virus, and that is a reason to celebrate.”

Massachusetts is running ahead of the national trend: through Thursday, the Baker administration reported that 846,900 out of about 1.17 million residents 65 and older had been fully vaccinated for a roughly 72 percent rate. Older adults have been among those hit hardest by the virus, with those 65 and older accounting for more than 80 percent of COVID-19 deaths in America. The vaccine rollout has led to an 80 percent reduction in deaths and a 70 percent reduction in hospitalizations among seniors, according to White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Jeff Zients.




Senator Warren Urges President Biden to Invest $700 Billion in Universal Child Care in the American Families Plan

United States Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), and Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), and Assistant Speaker Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), along with Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), and 32 Members from the House of Representatives, are urging the Biden administration to include at least $700 billion over the next ten years for long-term, structural investments in universal child care in the American Families Plan.

“As the pandemic has made clear, child care is essential infrastructure that makes all other work in our country possible. High quality child care also has long-lasting benefits for young children’s development,” wrote the lawmakers. “We believe this is a generational opportunity to invest in affordable, quality care for all children who need it, and we urge you not to let it go to waste.”

The American Rescue Plan included more than $40 billion for child care programs, which fulfilled the lawmakers’ call for much-needed emergency relief funding. However, it is not a long-term solution to the lack of affordable, high quality child care for working families. Child care providers, who already operated on razor-thin margins, have experienced closures, reduced enrollment, and increased operating costs throughout the pandemic. By one estimate, the combined relief funds are enough to fill this revenue gap for less than six months.

The American Families Plan, the lawmakers write, presents an opportunity to transform this broken system into one that is sustainable for families and providers over the long run. The plan should include making child care an entitlement for every family who needs it, capping out-of-pocket costs for families at no more than 7% of income, and raising payment rates for providers to ensure that they are paid a living wage with benefits, equivalent to other educators with similar credentials.

This investment would have lasting positive effects, not just on children and families, but on the economy at large. A recent study from the National Women’s Law Center and the Center on Poverty and Social Policy found that providing affordable, high-quality child care to every family that needs it would increase the number of women with young children working full time by 17%, narrow the pay gap between women and men, and increase women’s lifetime earnings by nearly $100,000 on average, with a corresponding increase in their savings and Social Security benefits.

“The American Families Plan presents an historic opportunity to not only recover from the devastating effects of the pandemic, but also to build a stronger caregiving economy for women and families across the country. Providing affordable, quality care for every child and family who needs it would create jobs, increase productivity, and have lifelong benefits for children’s development and growth. We urge you to prioritize investments in a stronger child care system in the American Families Plan to ensure that women and families are not left behind in our recovery,” the lawmakers concluded.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, Senators Warren and Smith have been calling for immediate support for the child care industry:

– In March 2021, Senators Warren, Smith, Wyden, Sherrod Brown, (D-Ohio), and Bob Casey, (D-Pa.), announced that they plan to introduce a new bill allocating mandatory funding to build child care availability over the long term and treat child care like the critical infrastructure that it is for families.
– Senator Warren and Mary Kay Henry, International President of the Service Employees – International Union (SEIU), published an op-ed on CNN.com on why we need big and bold improvements to the caregiving industry in America.
– In August 2020, Senators Warren and Smith called on Senate leadership to prioritize the inclusion of their plan for a $50 billion child care bailout in the next COVID-19 relief package.
– In May 2020, Senators Warren and Smith joined Representatives Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Bobby Scott (D-Va.), and Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.), in introducing the Child Care is Essential Act, which would create a $50 billion Child Care Stabilization Fund within the existing Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) program.
– In April 2020, Senator Warren and Representative Khanna (D-Calif.) called for essential workers to be among the beneficiaries of child care investments in the introduction of their Essential Workers Bill of Rights.
– In a New York Times op-ed published in July, Senator Warren reiterated the need to secure child care funds and also called for “long-term investments so more families can find affordable, high-quality, and safe care in the future.”
– In April 2020, Senators Warren and Smith announced their plan for a $50 billion child care bailout.
– In March 2020, Senators Warren and Smith led their colleagues in urging Senate leadership to include support for the child care sector in the COVID-19 relief package that became the CARES Act.




High School Juniors Won’t Need to Pass MCAS To Graduate in 2022

By Katie Lannan
State House News Service

This year’s high school junior class will not need to take or pass MCAS tests in order to graduate, under a change approved Tuesday by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The move is one of a series of pandemic-influenced shifts the state has made within its standardized testing program since COVID-19 first shuttered school buildings last spring.

Students are typically required to pass 10th grade English and math MCAS exams in order demonstrate competency in the two subjects and graduate. Last year’s 10th graders, the class of 2022, did not have an opportunity to take those tests last spring because education officials obtained a federal waiver and legislative approval to cancel the spring 2020 MCAS administration in the early days of remote learning.

Juniors will still be able to take the test in the spring and next fall to pursue scholarship opportunities, but the board voted to modify graduation requirements for the class of 2022 to allow those students to demonstrate competency in math and English by completing a relevant course instead of earning a passing MCAS score.

The change, which board member Matt Hills described as a “very narrow, tailored approach” affecting one class and one component of the exams, cleared the board unanimously.

“I think we’re as far as we need to go, and I hope this is the end of the modifications to MCAS,” Hills said.

Darlene Lombos, the board’s labor representative, and Jasper Coughlin, its student representative, both said they’d like to have additional conversations about MCAS testing.

“During this year when it’s really easy for students to feel cold and to feel that there aren’t people at higher levels looking out for them, I think this is exactly the type of thing that shows students that we’re caring about them,” said Coughlin, a Billerica Memorial High School student.

The pandemic’s disruptions to schooling have renewed debates about the role of standardized testing, with teachers unions and some lawmakers calling for the MCAS to be canceled this year, and the Baker administration describing the exams as a key tool for gauging where students may have fallen behind while learning remotely.

Ed Lambert, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, wrote to the board on Tuesday voicing a position that members of the class of 2022 should still be required to take the MCAS even if they are not required to earn a certain score to demonstrate competency.

Lambert said that past years’ passing rates suggest 85 percent or more students would achieve what would normally be considered a passing grade, and crossing that threshold would allow them “to know their diploma is of equal weight to those of previous classes of graduates.”

For other students, Lambert said, their scores would provide information that could be used “to create an Educational Proficiency Plan for their final year of school designed to assist them in meeting the essential standards prior to graduation.”

Board member Martin West suggested that schools encourage students to take the test, both for a chance to qualify for scholarships and to “learn about where they stand, relative to the expectations that we as a board have laid out for them.”

The board also voted to solicit public comment on Commissioner Jeff Riley’s proposed amendments to admissions regulations for vocational-technical schools. A final vote is expected in June after the comment period.

Among other changes, Riley’s proposal would give the schools flexibility to set their own admissions policies “that promote equitable access,” and would remove the requirement that grades, attendance, discipline record and counselor recommendation be used as admissions criteria.

Riley’s plan also would require each vocational school and program to annually submit its admissions policy to the state by Aug. 15 and would bar the use of selective criteria that disproportionately exclude members of protected classes, unless the criteria is “validated as essential to participation” and alternatives are unavailable.

Two Chelsea High School students, Aya Faiz and Emily Menjivar, told the board that criteria like grades, attendance, disciplinary records and recommendations can create barriers for students of color, who can face bias at school.

Faiz said she is “extremely cautious” about her behavior at school after getting suspended for two days in middle school for using a curse word. She said she saw her white peers instead get punished with detentions for cursing, and that Black and brown students are often viewed as “more adultified” in schools and therefore receive harsher discipline.

“We are handed higher expectations despite usually being from schools that have less resources and we are punished more severely for not meeting them,” she said.

Menjivar and Faiz are members of the Vocational Education Justice Coalition, which supports moving to lottery-based admissions.

Riley’s amendments seek to make clear that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education can order changes to a school’s admission policy in cases of non-compliance, and those changes “may include requiring a lottery,” according to a memo outlining the proposal.

Another coalition member, Dan French of Citizens for Public Schools, urged the board to have updated rules for vocational school admissions in place by July so that school policies would be submitted for review this August, before the school year begins.

“We don’t need another year of a discriminatory and exclusionary state policy in place,” he said.

French said the new proposal does not go far enough because it gives each school “too much latitude” to interpret what criteria is allowable.

Board member Michael Moriarty called Riley’s recommendations a “stronger approach than simply imposing lotteries across all schools.” He said lotteries amount to “a solution that addresses access” but have “absolutely no eye on outcome.”

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