Classrooms and hallways in Massachusetts will look a lot different if they end up reopening their doors in the fall.
The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) released its initial fall reopening guidance for schools, which includes students and faculty wearing masks, and desks spread apart to avoid the transmission of COVID-19.
Commissioner of education Jeffrey C. Riley wrote in his opening letter that teachers and faculty are moving away from a “spring unlike any before,” and toward a comprehensive plan that will ensure the safety of educators and their students.
He also mentioned the “long history of inequity” demonstrated by the killing of George Floyd and many others, and said schools will look through this lens as well as they consider reopening.
The Return to School Working Group was created in early May to begin planning for ways to safely and effectively reopen schools as soon as reasonably possible.
All the guidance issued by the state has been compiled from input by infectious disease specialists, pediatricians, the working group, and other public health officials.
“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 wrote.
The state is requiring school districts to develop three back-to-school models: in-person learning with new safety requirements, hybrid learning, and remote learning.
The state’s primary goal is for in-person learning, which has all students and staff return to school, with classrooms and schedules modified to meet health requirements. Schools should prioritize developing an in-person model, according to the guidance.
Under hybrid learning, school districts would develop an alternating schedule for students, such as having students switch between in-person and remote learning on alternating weeks or days of the week.
The remote learning model is for students who are not able to return in person, and for all students in the event there is a spike in cases and schools are closed.
Temperature screenings, however, will not be required, although school staff and bus drivers are asked to observe students throughout the day for signs of symptoms, and refer them to school health officials.
“We do believe it is safe for our children to return to in-person learning at schools, but this does not mean we can let our guard down,” Dr. Sandra Nelson, an infectious disease expert at Massachusetts General Hospital and one of the many stakeholders who put the guidance together, said at a press conference Thursday.
According to Island parent and chair of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School school committee Kimberly Kirk, the high school and elementary schools are working on putting together a task force that will take the guidance from the state and receive feedback from parents, health officials, and faculty members. This group, called the School Reopening Task Force, will consist of the superintendent and assistant superintendent, an elementary school principal, a director of special education, a guidance counselor, and a nurse, along with teachers and representatives from the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School.
Kirk called the reopening plan a “balancing act” between providing a quality education while also keeping students and teachers safe. “We have to prepare for the fall, but also look at alternative plans should the pandemic impact us in a different way,” Kirk said. “We need to be responsive and flexible, because who knows what is going to happen in the next few months.”
Kirk said now is not the time for the Island to get complacent, now is the time to work toward an in-depth plan that will prepare schools for whatever may happen in the fall. “This is the reality we are living in, and we need to stay focused,” Kirk said.
Assistant Superintendent Richie Smith said the guidelines released from DESE are “comprehensive, but still fairly general,” and that additional guidance with more specific procedures is forthcoming. According to Smith, schools need to be prepared for whatever direction the pandemic takes, and have a plan in place for providing a safe education to students.
Depending on the situation, Smith said, the school could do an entirely in-person curriculum (which he said is unlikely, as the circumstances are currently), a hybrid, “blended” model with one cohort doing online learning and one cohort doing in-person learning, or continue with exclusively virtual classes. Smith acknowledged that there is no substitute for hands-on, face-to-face learning, but said the schools on-Island will do what they have to do to keep kids and faculty safe.
“Our staff has felt the loss of that relational connection with kids. Relationships are such a huge factor toward student achievement,” Smith said. And some families might not feel comfortable with their children returning to school even if proper safety protocols are in place, so Smith said schools will have to have remote learning in place for those students.
Should students and teachers return to in-person classes in the fall, they should expect drastic changes in health protocols and overall daily life. Under the state guidelines, students in second grade and above are required to wear a mask or face covering that covers their nose and mouth, while students in kindergarten and first grade should be encouraged to wear masks. All students will be required to wear masks while on the school bus as well. Adults, including educators and staff, are required to wear masks throughout the day. If staff or students have conditions that make it unsafe for them to wear a mask, exceptions will be considered. The guidance suggests transparent masks for both teachers and students in classes for deaf and hard-of-hearing students, and for teachers and younger students who rely on visual or facial cues.
Folks in school are encouraged to take “mask breaks” whenever possible, if they are properly distanced, or “ideally outside, or at least with the windows open.”
All masks and face coverings should be provided by the family, according to the guidance, although disposable masks should be made available for students who need them. The state is encouraging that school districts aim for six feet of distance between individuals, with a minimum of three feet.
School facilities will also have to dramatically shift the physical structure of classrooms, entry and exit points, and areas with high amounts of foot traffic to accommodate these new health precautions. Schools will aim to place desks six feet apart, but no fewer than three feet apart, all facing the same direction. Schools will also seek to limit the intermingling of classes and student groups to avoid the spread of the virus. Students will divide into small groups that remain with one another throughout the day, and there will be no required maximum cohort size, so long as schools adhere to the other physical distancing requirements.
Gov. Charlie Baker said the state was close to implementing temperature checks, but did not because of the high likelihood of false-positive and false-negative results.
“[The] overwhelming message we got from the folks in the healthcare community in respect to kids’ temperature checks [was that they] will provide people with a lot of the wrong information with respect to the status of the kids when they show up to school,” Baker said at a press conference Thursday.
In addition to in-school protocols, families will be required to screen their kids before sending them to school, using a checklist that will be disseminated by DESE. “Checking for symptoms each morning by families and caregivers is critical, and will serve as the primary screening mechanism for COVID-19 symptoms,” the guidance states.
Everyone in the school will be required to use good hand hygiene, with hand sanitizer stations placed at key locations like entrances to buildings and classrooms.
There should also be an isolated space where students who are exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms can be sequestered from the rest of the student body.
Districts and schools will be required to submit their comprehensive fall reopening plans to DESE in August. The guidelines also require schools to develop plans for how students with disabilities, English language learners, and others will receive necessary services.
Baker touched on how students with disabilities have been affected by the lack of in-person schooling. “The overwhelmingly, most powerful messages that we have heard have been from the parents of special needs kids, who believe their kids have regressed dramatically over the past few months,” Baker said. “I can’t emphasize how important, especially for those kids and their families, that face time and that daily routine and that constant sense of communication and progress is to their ability to continue to grow and develop.”
Additional guidance, including sports, transportation, and handling a positive case in the school, will be released in July.
Reporter Brian Dowd contributed to this story.