The town meeting, for centuries, was a staple of New England life — but the coronavirus pandemic could accelerate the departure from the tradition where people gather to debate everything from the purchase of local road equipment to multimillion-dollar budgets to pressing social issues.
The basis of the town meeting is to bring everyone together in the same room — sometimes a literal town hall, sometimes a school gymnasium — where voters will hash out local issues until a decision is made.
The restrictions on in-person gatherings imposed by the pandemic make that impossible.
Some communities are delaying meetings this year until the virus will, hopefully, be more under control. Others are using pre-printed ballots to decide issues, forgoing the daylong debate altogether.
Some worry the temporary workaround could remain even after life returns to normal.
Cape Cod is getting its own mass vaccination site that will at first work on getting shots to older residents of the region who haven't been able to schedule an appointment at other sites, officials said.
The clinic at Cape Cod Community College in Barnstable is expected to dispense 4,000 doses next week, Michael Lauf, president and CEO of Cape Cod Healthcare, said Thursday, the Cape Cod Times reported.
The site being run by Cape Cod Healthcare with county and local officials.
The goal is to reach eligible older residents and those with health issues who have been left out in the stampede to off-Cape mass vaccination sites and to regional clinics that have limited appointments that quickly fill.
Mobile COVID-19 vaccine clinics could start in Boston as soon as next week, aiming to first target city-run homes for seniors and people with disabilities.
Boston Health and Human Services Chief Marty Martinez said Thursday that the city will get more of those operating as fast as it can.
"It's complicated," Martinez said. "You have to have doses, you have to be able to store them, you have to be able to make sure that you have a pharmacist that can do the leg work and make sure that you have someone who can monitor folks. For those folks who've been vaccinated, you know you wait 15 to 30 minutes to be observed and we need to make sure that can happen."
The mobile clinics would be in addition to the roughly 20 vaccine sites in the city now.
Gov. Charlie Baker wants to phase out remote learning starting in April, making it possible for every student to return to the classroom before the school year ends.
"We've seen the repercussions of prolonged remote learning for our kids: Their social, mental and emotional well-being has been significantly impacted," Gov. Baker said during a press briefing Tuesday.
Baker pointed to "dozens of reports from all over the world that it's safe to be in school" particularly with mitigation measures in place such as masking, hygiene, cleaning, physical distancing and routine coronavirus testing. More than 900 Massachusetts schools are now participating in a routine, pooled surveillance testing program for students, teachers and staff.
Last week, President Biden said the goal for in-person learning time for students should be five days a week.
State education Commissioner Jeff Riley says that parents would be able to choose to keep their kids learning remotely if they choose. Riley said about 20% of the state's districts are operating fully remote and are among the state's largest districts.
"At some point, as health metrics continue to improve, we will need to take remote and hybrid learning models off the table and return to a traditional school format," Riley said during a Tuesday meeting of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The state's latest data from the beginning of February show 462 students and 212 staff had reported positive cases. The case numbers have been generally trending downward following a post-Thanksgiving increase.
"We’ll never have zero risk in school when it comes to COVID-19 or any danger infectious or otherwise," testified Dr. Shira Doron, an epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center, during Tuesday's board hearing. "We simply have to change our mindset when it comes to risk tolerance. The risk in school is low. The risk to our children being out of school is growing."
In a Feb. 14 letter addressed to Riley, more than 60 physicians stressed the mental and physical health harms for students isolated at home.
But some teachers union leaders are pushing for more details around school ventilation and teacher vaccinations.
"We still haven't seen a plan for vaccinations for educators," Boston Teachers Union president Jessica Tang said. "Educators are ready to get those vaccinations."
The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rochelle Walensky, has said that educators should receive early vaccinations, but that teachers do not need to be vaccinated in order to reopen schools safely. Educators are listed under phase two of the state's vaccine rollout.
"I do think that we're at a point that we have sufficient evidence to show that it's safe to go back to the classroom, both for the students and the teachers," Kelly Horton of Bedford said.
Horton has three kids. Her third grader is learning in a hybrid model in Bedford Public Schools, and she can’t wait for him to get more time in front of his teacher. Horton is afraid he’s falling behind academically.
"My third grader knows how to navigate his Chromebook, he knows what links to click, he knows how to work Zoom and all of that," she said. "But when I actually take a closer look at what he's learning and comprehending, it's minimal."
Other children need the social and emotional supports that classroom learning can provide. Ally Mancuso’s fifth grade daughter has ADHD and has been struggling to keep up on her remote learning days in Holliston Public Schools.
"We've struggled a lot from a behavioral standpoint at home, much more than we have in the past," Mancuso said. "It is heightened now, and I know exactly why."
Others, like Boston parent Matthew Smith, are conflicted. While he is personally comfortable sending his daughter back to full time in-person kindergarten, he worries what that would be like.
"I don't want to send my daughter back to a school where some of the kid's parents, some of the kids themselves, are scared or the teachers are scared," Smith said.
But he’s also worried about the impacts of screen time. Spending so much time on Zoom is already influencing his young daughter’s play time.
"She'll take a cardboard box and be like, 'OK, this is my this is this is my computer. We have a meeting now. OK, we have to Zoom into the meeting. Can you please mute?' And that's heartbreaking," Smith said.
But there are also families who believe returning to in-person learning still doesn’t feel safe, especially if they have underlying health issues.
Nalida Besson’s daughter has a chronic condition, so she wants her kids to finish out the year at Boston Public Schools remotely. She on the fence about next school year. The new COVID-19 variants are making her nervous.
"I know they say children are less affected," Besson said. "They may get it, but they have a higher chance of survival. At the same time, I think from an equity standpoint, looking at the children who are most affected — it’s Black and brown children. And that's my kids."
In Worcester, only half of families opted for a hybrid learning model. District leaders have discussed creating a remote academy for next school year to accommodate families who don't feel comfortable sending their kids to school until children have been vaccinated.
"We have every ability to serve them," Worcester school committee member Tracy O'Connell Novick said. "We’ve been doing remote particularly well since September. And for the commissioner to try to rip that away from us seems poorly thought out — to put it nicely."
"I still don’t think it’s possible to make an across the board announcement that as of a specific date, this is what’s going to happen," Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said. "Once you start using the heavy hand of state regulation and you start telling people what to do, you run the risk of inviting a more civil form of civil disobedience where the communities say no you really can’t impose those on us."
Riley said he will ask the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education for the authority to determine when hybrid and remote models will no longer count for learning hours in March's board meeting. The learning modes will be available at least until the end of this school year, but he would like to set an end date for remote learning in traditional public school districts soon.
The Maryland-based software company whose technology played a role in the state's COVID-19 vaccine scheduling system fiasco last week appears to have cost Massachusetts almost half a million dollars, according to the Baker administration.
PrepMod, an offshoot of the Maryland Partnership For Prevention and Multi-State Partnership for Prevention that says it is "the state's biggest online appointment vendor," accepted responsibility for the chaos that ensued when about one million more people became eligible to get a vaccine appointment last Thursday, though other systems are believed to have failed as well. The state's COVID-19 Command Center provided a bundle of documents related to the contract with PrepMod to the News Service on Monday afternoon.
A purchase order dated Aug. 21, 2020, billed the Department of Public Health's Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences $318,000 for "Enterprise Resource Planning Bundle and Services and Support."
During the pandemic, New Hampshire Public Radio has received hundreds — if not thousands — of emails from listeners. People have written in expressing frustration with the government, or school closures, or to sing the praises of the National Guard and healthcare workers.
One recent email stood out for where it was sent from: an Epping, New Hampshire woman named Carol Clapp writing from halfway around the globe.
“I have been stuck in New Zealand on the bottom of the South Island in a town called Riverton for the past year and a half because of the coronavirus,” Clapp told NHPR during a Zoom interview last week.
“Yeah, there are birds. And that’s a gum tree, a eucalyptus behind me,” she said while seated in the sunshine on her back porch.
Clapp has been riding out the pandemic sitting underneath a eucalyptus tree in New Zealand, a country that instituted and followed strict public health guidelines, and within months, had stamped out COVID-19.
So how exactly did she end up stuck there?
“It’s a long story,” said Clapp.
After growing up on the family farm in Epping, Clapp was married to a man named David for 43 years. They liked to travel, and in 1978 they vacationed in New Zealand. Twenty years later, their son decided to go to college there, where he studied welding.
“We ended up buying a house,” she said. “David and I, well, he died five years ago. But we came down here for the past 19 years, just for the summers.”
After David’s death, Clapp, who is now 73, continued making the 30-hour trip each year, leaving Epping in October, and getting a return ticket each April. She’s a long-distance snowbird.
So she was in the small town of Riverton when COVID exploded last March, and couldn’t leave.
“New Zealand immigration wasn’t letting anybody leave the country or come into the country because they take the virus very seriously here. So they gave all of us stranded tourists, visitor-types, six month extension on our visas,” she said.
She then received another extension; the government has been gracious to Clapp.
And it turns out, so have some of the locals.
“Well, I've had quite a year here, in that, I got a boyfriend out of the lockdown, and Al is my new man, and he just takes really good care of me,” Clapp said. “And I’ve been having a wonderful time during this terrible crisis.”
Clapp said she met Al one evening at a bar in the nearby city of Invercargill.
“I’ve never picked a man up before, but I just couldn’t leave this guy alone,” Clapp said.
Al turned out to be a wonderful guy to spend a pandemic with, in part, because “he’s been really good with doing activities that waste time, like playing poker, and betting on horses, and playing pool, a lot of pool.”
After the interview, Clapp said she and Al had plans to go into town and dance at a bar.
No masks, no social distancing. After New Zealand emerged from a strict lockdown last spring, Clapp said her life there had returned to normal.
But her actual normal life is in New Hampshire, where her family resides. So next month, when her visa expires, she plans on coming home to Epping.
That’s the reason she originally reached out to NHPR: She had questions about the vaccination process.
But Clapp is optimistic her love story will not be dimmed by a change in time zones.
“I’m buying an iPad, and I'm going to make him take lessons on email,” she said. “And I’ve given him my old iPhone. I'm going to make him write me love letters through email. He might even Zoom. Who knows? But he’s going to have to step up, it’s true.”
This story was published as part of the New England News Collaborative. It originally appeared on New Hampshire Public Radio's website.
Suffolk Superior Court Judge Robert Ullmann has denied an injunction to release more Massachusetts prisoners during the pandemic, but left the door open for prisoners advocates to amend their suit and ask again.
They're promising to do just that.
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