2021-03-18-EDPIC (copy) (copy)

Gov. Charlie Baker said in an interview Sunday that the debate about whether schools could reopen safely for in-person learning is “pretty much over.”

As Massachusetts districts look ahead to the state’s April deadlines to bring elementary and middle school students back into classrooms, Gov. Charlie Baker believes debate over the safety of in-person learning “is pretty much over.”

His administration’s instructions to bring elementary schoolers back by April 5 and middle schoolers back by April 28 is realistic, Baker said in an interview with CBS Boston’s Jon Keller that aired Sunday.

While some teachers unions have voiced concerns about educator safety and reopening some schools before all teachers have a chance to get vaccinated, Baker pointed to the negative effects of remote learning and a weekly pool testing program that nearly half of districts have embraced.

“People make this a binary discussion, but what I find most compelling is so many schools in Massachusetts across all parameters — in terms of whether they’re public, private, parochial, high school, middle school, elementary school — so many have demonstrated that this can be done, and done safely,” Baker said. “I think that part of the debate is pretty much over.”

The administration and the Massachusetts Teachers Association traded barbs after Education Commissioner Jeff Riley set the April targets for resuming classroom learning, with MTA President Merrie Najimy arguing that the goal was “poorly timed” alongside the ongoing vaccine rollout and Baker’s team urging the union to “do the math” about vaccine availability.

Masking and public health protocols in schools with in-person learning have helped curtail the spread of COVID-19, but the virus remains common among students and school personnel, according to weekly reports that document case counts.

Massachusetts schools recorded 476 new COVID-19 cases among students and 193 cases among staff from March 11 to March 17, the most recent batch of data reported by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. In Baker’s hometown, Swampscott High School switched to a fully remote learning model until at least April 5 after a nonschool event led to a significant COVID-19 outbreak among a number of students.

Fourth of July target

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Also in Sunday’s interview, Baker defended his administration’s “pretty incremental strategy” to relax COVID-19 restrictions and push Massachusetts forward into the final stage of reopening, adding that he believes the Bay State is on track to achieve something close to normalcy by July 4.

Baker said he has no second thoughts about the decision to move to the fourth and final reopening phase starting Monday, despite Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky warning weeks ago against easing up too quickly.

“Different parts of the country are in different places, both with respect to the virus and with respect to what their rules are with regard to what people can do and what they can’t do,” Baker said. “I would argue many changes we made in March were modest. They basically took us back to where we were at one point last fall.”

Last spring, Baker said, Massachusetts did not see a significant surge in key metrics such as new cases or hospitalizations after it started allowing some businesses to reopen. After peaking in January, those trend lines declined significantly and started to flatten, which Baker said he expects.

President Joe Biden has targeted the Fourth of July as a date when the country can “mark independence” from COVID-19. Asked when he believes normal life will return to Massachusetts, Baker offered a similar target, particularly if supply of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine scales up in April as expected.

“Some of that depends a little bit on whether the supply projections we’re getting from the folks in D.C. pan out. If they do, I fully expect that we’ll be able to get to the date the president talked about, the Fourth of July, in a very different place than we were in, certainly, the last Fourth of July and where we’ve been for much of the last year,” Baker said.

“The likelihood that many people in Massachusetts will be fully vaccinated by the time we get there is quite high.”