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Charlie Baker extends closure of Massachusetts schools, childcare

Gov. Charlie Baker ordered nearly a month’s long extension from his initial suspension on school closures and non-emergency childcare programs Wednesday in an ongoing effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“This is not an extended school vacation,” Baker said. “This will allow school districts to provide the best possible opportunities for remote learning to all students.”

The initial order from Baker called for a three-week suspension beginning March 15, which would have expired on April 6. Now public and private schools and non-emergency daycare programs will not be able to open before Monday, May 4. The state will work with school districts to develop at-home educational programs, Baker said.

The new order comes as Massachusetts continues to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, with public health officials reporting four new deaths Wednesday, raising the total to 15. The Bay State has confirmed 1,838 cases to date, according to the Department of Public Health, having tested 19,794 residents.

In what has become a daily coronavirus update at the State House, Baker announced a $5 million rental assistance program for families struggling with rent insecurity during the crisis through the Department of Housing and Community Development. The press conference was held after Baker’s conference call with a newly established COVID-19 Advisory Board, comprised of five medical and infectious disease experts.

“The group’s been advising the command center around expanding access to testing and planning for the medical surge,” Baker said.

Baker said he shares the “frustration and dismay,” of the health care community surrounding the availability of protective equipment and that the state continues to “chase” the gear.

Baker also announced recommendations that all owners of state aided low-income housing suspend new and pending non-essential evictions, and to Massachusetts financial institutions and lenders to provide relief for borrowers. The state will advocate for a 60-day stay on behalf of all homeowners facing imminent foreclosure on their homes, Baker said.

And as grocery stores and pharmacies continue to perform a critical, front-line role for residents during the pandemic, Baker said the state is issuing new guidance including at least one hour per day of shopping dedicated to adults over 60 years old, procedures to ensure social distancing and sanitizing, closure of self-serve food stations and steps to give high-risk employees assignments with less exposure to potential infection.

The governor also said the state would lift plastic bag bans, prohibit reusable bags and ban stores from charging customers for bags.