BOSTON (WPRI) — Summer vacation has a different feel to it this year as students, parents and teachers wonder what the return to school in the fall will look like.
Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Jeffrey Riley released the “Initial Fall School Reopening Guidance” on Thursday.
Based on the current public health data and COVID-19 trends, the medical community supports Massachusetts students’ return to in-person learning with appropriate health and safety guidelines in place.
“If the current positive public health metrics hold, we believe that when we follow critical health requirements, we can safely return to in-person school this fall with plans in place to protect all members of our educational community,” Riley said.
Just like Rhode Island, Riley says school districts are being asked to prepare a reopening plan that has three possible learning models for the fall — in-person learning with new safety requirements, a mix of in-person and remote learning, and the continuation of remote learning. Schools will also need a focused plan for special student populations.
“Children with emotional, psychological or developmental disabilities often receive necessary services through their schools. Because some of these services have been put on hold during the pandemic, continued school closures will be especially detrimental to this group of vulnerable children,” Pediatrician Dr. Lloyd Fisher said during Gov. Baker’s Thursday briefing.
Districts are asked to submit a comprehensive reopening plan to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) in August that addresses these three models, according to Riley.
The plan includes initial health and safety practices that will allow for a safe reopening in the fall, which will be modified as needed.
“In developing the back to school plans, the department, our administration, considered not only the risks associated with COVID-19 for in person schooling, but also the risks associated with continuing to keep students out of the classroom,” Governor Baker said. “Continued isolation poses very really risks to our kids mental and physical health, and to their educational development.”
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One thing that may surprise parents is that schools will not be doing daily temperature checks when students arrive at school. Instead, guidance says that temperature-taking will be left to the parents before school. Parents will be asked not to send their child to school if they have a fever or any other symptoms of COVID-19.
Baker, when asked at his Thursday briefing, explained they won’t be taking student’s temperatures because children are often not symptomatic when they have the virus and may have higher temperatures without having the virus.
“The overwhelming message that we got from folks in the health care community was, with respect to kids, temperature checks will actually provide people with a lot of the wrong information,” Baker said. “There are way too many false positives and false negatives to not only not make it worth while, but to create potential issues in respect to what people believe to be true.”
All students who are in second grade or older are required to wear a face mask/covering the covers both their nose and mouth. Students in kindergarten and first grade are encouraged to wear a mask, but it will not be mandatory. Parents are to provide masks for their children but schools will provide extras in case someone forgets a mask at home or cannot afford one.
Masks must also be worn by everyone riding on the bus to and from school.
The only exceptions are for those who cannot wear a mask due to medical conditions, disability, to other health and safety factors.
Mask breaks should be held throughout the day when students can be six feet apart, ideally outside or at least with the windows open, according to the new guidance.
When it comes to group sizes, there will not be a cap on how many students will be allowed in each classroom. This will be up to the district, based on the physical size of each building’s classrooms. However, school staff and bus drivers should observe students throughout the day and refer those who may be symptomatic to the school nurse.
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Additionally, the guidance states elementary schools should aim to keep students in the same group throughout the day while middle and high schools are encouraged to minimize mixing student groups to the extent feasible. Schools are asked to divide students into small groups that remain with each other throughout the day, with smaller cohort sizes preferred.
Schools are also being asked to aim for a physical distance of six feet between people, but three feet is being considered the minimum distance allowed. This means desks should be spaced out six feet apart and all facing the same direction.
Students may be expected to eat breakfast and lunch in a classroom rather than in a cafeteria or common area. If serving food in the cafeteria, schools are asked to develop staggered schedules to minimize mixing of cohorts. Physical distancing protocols must be enforced, and food preparation and service procedures would need to minimize shared items (i.e. serving utensils).
Schools are being asked to set up a separate COVID-19 isolation room, possibly rethinking uses of cafeterias or libraries. This room will be separate from the nurses office, where students showing symptoms can wait to be picked up.
“Modeling studies suggest that school closures have had less impact on slowing the epidemic down than other distancing measures,” Infectious Disease Specialist Dr. Sandra Nelson said. “We do believe that it is safe for our children to return to in person learning at school, but this does not mean that we can let our guard down, either in the schools or in the communities.”
Additionally, the Baker-Polito administration announced the allocation of about $200 million from the Commonwealth’s federal Coronavirus Relief Fund for costs related to reopening public schools. Schools will be able to receive up to $225 per student for costs such as training for school staff, supplemental social and academic services, reconfiguration of school spaces, leasing of temporary facilities, and acquisition of health and hygiene supplies.
Municipalities, school districts, and charter schools will be able to apply for these funds in the next few weeks.
In partnership with the legislative leadership, the administration is also committing $25 million in federal funds for a matching grant program to help school districts and charter schools close the technology gap for families who lack access to computers or WiFi.
A difficult aspect of in-school education to fund and safely schedule is busing. This, along with fall sports, is expected to be outlined in guidelines set to be announced in July.