WHITMAN — After Gov. Charlie Baker announced on Tuesday afternoon, April 21 that schools would not reopen this school year, Whitman Selectmen voted to reschedule the annual Town Election to June 27.
Town Administrator Frank Lynam reported that there are now 73 Whitman residents with coronavirus, up from 52 last week.
“I don’t know where that big jump came from, but hopefully it’s not a sign of any future trend,” he said.
Two town employees have been quarantined, but no one has “come back active” with COVID-19. One Whitman resident, who had been living in a nursing home in another community has reportedly died from the virus.
Baker’s announcement also included an order that all non-emergency child care programs also remain closed until June 29. Residential special education programs are exempt from the order.
“It’s the right thing to do considering the facts on the ground associated with the COVID-19 pandemic,” Baker said during Tuesday’s announcement. “And at this point in time, there is no authoritative guidance or advisories with respect to how to operate schools safely and how to get kids to and from schools safely. We believe students therefore cannot safely return to school and avoid the risk of transmitting this virus to others.”
Teachers’ unions had been pushing for a decision on the matter, which continues the current online learning approach as the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) begins working on summer learning programs for students at risk of falling behind in their schoolwork. A remote learning initiative is also being finalized for students and teachers as they continue remote learning activities from home.
Whitman Selectmen also endorsed a proposal from Selectman Brian Bezanson and School Committee member Fred Small that the town organize some kind of celebration during the summer for the Class of 2020, who will miss out on senior year milestones of prom and graduation.
“It would be nice if the town could come through with something to lift spirits after this kind of ruined their senior year,” Bezanson said.
But the bulk of discussion between Selectmen and Town Clerk Dawn Varley Tuesday night centered on when — and for how long — polls should be opened to ensure voting rights as well as the safety of poll workers.
While the postponement to June 27 was approved, the issue of polling hours is still pending. The election must take place before June 30.
“It looks like, no matter what we do, we have to hold an election this year,” Lynam said. “Dawn’s concern is bringing people into Town Hall to vote.”
Varley stressed that she is concerned about protecting the health of her election workers — many of whom are senior citizens — as well as the public.
“If somebody were to get sick because of an election and because of me it would be a terrible thing to live with, and I want to do everything I can to protect the voters and to protect the people that work the elections,” she said.
She suggested a four-hour voting period with the option of voting by mail in state-wide elections. Lynam said six hours is also an option. Six-foot boundaries would also be marked off.
In the last 10 town elections an average turnout was 931 voters out of 10,453. The state has encouraged a four-hour voting window, the minimum allowed by law.
Selectman Justin Evans expressed concern that voting hours should not be restricted without first exploring other options, including possibly rotating election workers’ shifts.
“I just don’t like the idea of limiting any opportunities to vote,” Evans said.
Selectmen Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski’s concern came from a different direction.
“If you’re trying to avoid people crowding into a place, the more you restrict the hours, the more you increase the opportunities for lots of people to show up at the same time,” Kowalski said.
Varley noted that people have asked if, as grocery stores are doing, certain hours could be set aside for seniors to vote or even holding the election outside.
“We’ve all thought of a lot of different things,” she said. “You can’t do any of that.”
Face masks cannot be required, either, she argued. Lynam said Selectmen could require it, but for an election, Varley said the town may be required to provide them, which Bezanson said the town could do.
Lynam expressed concern about that expense.
Drive-up dropboxes for depositing completed ballots were also discussed.
Since the hours do not have to be set right now, Varley said she will track the number of early ballots she receives as well as follow-up guidance from the state and surveying what other communities are doing, before the board decides that issue.
In other business, Selectmen voted to keep Town bill due dates as is, with interest or penalties waived for the period of March 10 to June 29.