Gov. Baker: Data Shows Reopening Schools 'Can Be Done And Done Safely'

WBZ-TV political analyst Jon Keller talks to Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker.

Video Transcript

JON KELLER: Welcome back to our conversation with Governor Charlie Baker. And Governor, Jeff Riley, the commissioner of elementary and secondary education, has ordered districts to bring all willing elementary students back to the classrooms full time by April 5, middle schoolers back by the end of April.

The Mass Teachers Association wants that April 5 date pushed back three weeks to allow more teachers to get vaccinated, and, quoting the union president, "set up physical space in the buildings, redo the bus schedules, redo the learning models, redo the lesson plans," and give union locals and school committees time to, quoting again, "renegotiate any plans that need to be renegotiated," end quote.

Commissioner Riley says, quote, "we think the districts have had the blueprint to go back all along." Who's right, him or her?

CHARLIE BAKER: Well keep in mind, Jon, that there are a lot of schools-- public, private, parochial-- at every level that have been operating since August. And the vast majority of them have been operating safely. And that's because almost all the data that's been developed all over the world has made pretty clear that if you follow pretty defined mitigation strategies, kids can do well in schools and schools can be safe for kids and adults.

And I think by this time, everybody appreciates the fact that kids not being in school for such an extended period of time is bad for them educationally and bad for them developmentally. And in some ways, I think the-- people make this a binary discussion. But what I find most compelling is so many schools in Massachusetts-- as I said-- across sort of all parameters in terms of whether they're public or private or parochial, high school, middle school, elementary school, so many have demonstrated that this can be done and done safely. I think that part of the debate at this point is pretty much over.

JON KELLER: Yeah, but the teacher's union is saying there are all these complex issues that have to be resolved before we come back. Are you buying that?

CHARLIE BAKER: Well, I guess I'd say that many school districts are open. And those school districts have many folks who are in the same unions that you're talking about here. And many school districts have negotiated deals with their local union to reopen, and have reopened recently, or are planning to reopen. Many are reopening before the deadline that was proposed by Commissioner Riley and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

JON KELLER: So why is she saying this?

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

CHARLIE BAKER: --for the most part, want to teach. And the data out there shows that it can be done safely.

JON KELLER: So you're saying the union president is out of touch with reality on her own membership?

CHARLIE BAKER: I'm saying that there's plenty of fine success here. And in addition to this, we've made other tools available to districts. I think we're the only state in the country that's made weekly surveillance testing for teachers, students, and staff available. And we have 177 districts in Massachusetts that have signed up to use this program.

And I've gone and visited it in a number of schools, public schools, in which it's currently in place. People have gotten pretty smart about how to make some of this stuff work. And I think many people have acknowledged the fact that kids really do need to be in school.

JON KELLER: Recently when you rejected the union's call for in-school vaccinations, you really sounded like you were at the end of your rope with the teacher unions.

CHARLIE BAKER: Well, I guess what I would say is that we have a program to vaccinate people in Massachusetts that's a national leader. And it's a mixed model. It involves pharmacies and mass vax sites and hospitals and regional collaboratives, local boards of health. I mean, there's a lot of different players who are getting this done for people in Massachusetts.

And we've prioritized teachers. We've given them special days that are just going to be for them. And you know, tens of thousands of educators have been vaccinated over the course of the past couple of weeks. Tens of thousands are going to be vaccinated going forward. And it's important that they get vaccinated.

But I think in many ways, we wanted to use a model that was already built, already developed and available for people. And it's working for them.

JON KELLER: How-- there is a waiver process where districts can apply for a delay. How strict do you want commissioner Riley and education secretary Peyser to be with regard to waivers for districts to coming back full time?

CHARLIE BAKER: Well, obviously some of that is going to be fact-based. And it's hard to-- and specific to whatever the issues are in particular districts. So I hesitate to comment too broadly on it. What I would say is that Commissioner Riley has spent a lot of time with the superintendents over the course of the year. I think he's got a pretty good idea about what they need to be able to get kids back in school.

I do think this ability to get everybody weekly surveillance testing if they want it, combined with a lot of the guidance around opening, plus a ton of gear we bought for school districts around ventilation and air purification, makes it possible for most of these folks to pull this off.

And I think the commissioner will treat-- I mean, he ran many schools and a big school district up in Lawrence in a previous life. He knows what it means to be in these jobs on a daily basis. And I'm sure that will factor into the way he makes these decisions.

JON KELLER: Governor, let's end this portion of our conversation the way we began, on a more positive note. What's your--

CHARLIE BAKER: I think kids getting back to school is a positive note.

JON KELLER: Well, OK, it is. Fair enough. But what's your assessment of when normal life will return to Massachusetts?

CHARLIE BAKER: Well, some of that depends a little bit on whether the supply projections that we're getting from the folks in DC pan out. If they do, I fully expect that we'll be able to get to the date that the president talked about, the 4th of July, in a very different place than we were in certainly the last 4th of July, and where we've been for much of the last year.

JON KELLER: So I'll be able to scream at my neighbors during my July 4 cookout?

CHARLIE BAKER: I would hope that you wouldn't scream at anybody, Jon. But I think the likelihood that many people in Massachusetts will be vaccinated-- fully vaccinated-- by the time we get there is quite high.