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Baker pressed on school COVID-19 policies by legislators at statehouse hearing

Massachusetts Gov Charlie Baker at a lecturn
Governor's press office
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Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker testified Tuesday at a virtual statehouse hearing on COVID-19 emergency preparedness and management.

The Republican answered questions about his administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic posed by a joint committee of the overwhelmingly Democratic state legislature.

“On a number of occasions recently, you, both you and your administration said that the KN95 masks distributed to schools had been tested by MIT- And I know that you're aware of this. And then on January 5th, DESE released a statement that there were KN95 masks distributed to schools that were not tested, and according to guidelines, were less than about 50% effective," said Democratic Committee Chair Jo Comerford, a State Senator representing the Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester district. “In DESE’s response, it noted that the, quote, use of KN95 masks is voluntary and that staff should be aware that their choice of masks is ultimately a personal decision. That's a quote. End quote. You're probably aware that some well-resourced districts have taken the distribution of high quality masks on themselves, like Amherst-Pelham in my area. Why doesn't the state set public health standard guidelines for the quality of masks used in schools given the transmissibility of Omicron and the proven efficacy of high quality masks, and then back up that guidance with sufficient resources or a next shipment of those kinds of high quality, high performing masks?”

“We sent out 6 million KN95 masks, what, 10 days ago or so. And it was brought to our attention that some of them may have not been part of the group of KN95s that got tested. And we checked on that, and that was true. And we put out the data for the ones that had been tested. We've now begun the process of testing the other ones and the preliminary results are very positive with respect to the efficacy and safety of those masks," responded Baker. “I have to say that every respected public health voice in America says that schools for the most part, are low transmission operations, that school is not only safe, especially for kids, it's healthy, and the kids need to be in school and the kids need not just the learning that comes from being in school, but the socialization that comes from it as well.”

Comerford disagreed.

“In my estimation, our schools are facing an immediate and pretty urgent crisis with respect to health and safety concerns, staffing shortages, burnout, and learning disruptions due to COVID related absenteeism across the board," said the state senator. "That’s students, faculty and staff.”

Comerford’s stance has been echoed by groups like the Massachusetts Teachers Association, a union that has been persistently critical of Baker’s handling of the pandemic in schools.

She shared a message from a Franklin County constituent who works as a school nurse.

“This nurse wrote that in the absence of state public health measures like a high quality masking mandate and sufficient rapid testing – and again, thank you for beginning to address that – it felt like the state was just, quote, letting this virus run rampant in our communities. The nurse concluded in her email that, quote, as a school nurse, it feels like we're trying to fight a wildfire and no one else seems to care.”

She continued to press the governor on the issue.

“What I was asking was, why doesn't the state set standard guidelines for the highest quality masks that districts should provide public health informed guidelines?" asked Comerford. "Since we know that Omicron is so transmissible, since we know we need a high quality mask, since we know there's glaring gaps, especially for our youngest kids- Why are why are we not just issuing those guidelines? Do you have a response to that?"

“Our goal all along has been to make it possible to support communities with respect to their goals and their initiatives around all of this," said Baker. "But the idea that schools aren't safe is just not based on any data. It's just- And I'm not going to let people perpetuate this idea that schools aren't safe, because they are. And it's been proven not just in Massachusetts, but in the US and around the world for the better part of a year and a half.”

“OK, governor, I understand you're not going to answer this question," said Comerford. "I would like to say that on behalf of the Senate, I think public health guidelines and issuing a standard quality mask is a good idea, and then following those up with by distributing them, because in my area, the wealthier districts are getting those higher quality masks. And that's all I'll say.”

Baker and Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders also responded to questions around health equity in communities of color and the difficulty of securing testing as the pandemic drags on into its third year.

You can hear the full meeting here.

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