Baker: National Guard to assist with school transportation
Mariano says federal aid spending plan could come by Thanksgiving
GOV. CHARLIE BAKER called up the National Guard on Monday to help transport kids to school, amid a shortage of school bus drivers in the state.
Baker said once it became clear that a number of communities were lacking drivers, he asked local leaders if they were interested in state help. “A bunch of communities said if you can figure out the legal issues, the paperwork, and all the rest, that would be great,” Baker said, speaking to reporters at the State House. Baker said his goal is to make sure kids can get to school, and he anticipates the cost will be reimbursed by the federal government.
The governor issued an order that will make up to 250 members of the National Guard available to transport children to school in vans, if requested by local school officials. They will drive so-called 7D vehicles – vans of up to 10 students, which are often used to transport special needs students.
Beginning with training on Tuesday, 90 Guard members will prepare for service in Chelsea, Lawrence, Lowell, and Lynn, the governor’s announcement said. The Guard members are in the process of being vetted.
Baker said the state offered services to Boston. “Boston said that at this time they didn’t want it now, but they were going to think about it,” Baker said. The preliminary mayoral election, with Acting Mayor Kim Janey as one of the candidates, is beind held on Tuesday.
The governor said state officials had been making efforts over the summer to get more bus drivers qualified – for example, speeding up the testing process to obtain a commercial driver’s license. But he said part of the problem is the “growing pains” of reopening all schools, after many schools spent a full year operating remotely.
As he has in the past, Baker reiterated the importance of having all students return to school, citing the educational and emotional toll remote learning took last year. “If we learned anything from 2020, the biggest lesson we learned was that remote-only education for kids, for the most part, in the vast majority of circumstances and situations, especially for younger kids, didn’t work,” Baker said.
The governor was asked why he has not imposed a COVID vaccine mandate on teachers, as he has for nursing home workers and executive branch employees. Baker responded that teachers are municipal employees, so the responsibility and accountability for them falls on municipal government.
Baker spoke to reporters after he and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito met privately in his office with House Speaker Ron Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka. The governor and the legislative heads used to meet weekly in person, but those meetings were suspended during the pandemic. While one prior in-person meeting was held several weeks ago in the Senate offices, Baker said this was the first time the four top government officials had met in the governor’s office since March 2020.
One of the biggest issues facing legislative leaders is how to spend billions of dollars of federal money provided by the American Rescue Plan Act. Baker has been pushing to spend the money quickly, while House and Senate leaders want to be more deliberative, and are in the process of holding public hearings. Mariano said Monday that having an agreement in place on how to spend some of the money by Thanksgiving is a “reasonable” timetable.
Mariano said another priority of his for this session is health care, particularly helping financially struggling community hospitals. Spilka said she anticipates the Senate passing a mental health bill. She is also prioritizing election reforms and redistricting.
Mariano raised those issues when asked when the building might reopen to the public. He mentioned the Republican-sponsored bill and said he was uncomfortable asking members and staff to return when some people are unwilling to declare their vaccination status.“I don’t want to have a two-tiered system where I’m asking folks to come in and work besides people who will not declare whether they’ve been vaccinated,” Mariano said. “We have people in the House who are being treated, are immunocompromised. I’m not going to ask those people to sit next to people who won’t declare…. We’re not going to ask our membership to put their health at risk.”
Mariano acknowledged the legal issues involved with imposing a vaccine mandate on elected officials. “What do I do to a representative who wants to come in who won’t declare [their vaccination status]? Those are the names on the bill. Do I throw them out? Do I ask them to come in and sit next to a representative who is immunocompromised?”