State education leaders released new guidance about how schools could reopen this fall.
Teachers and students as young as second grade will be required to wear a face mask. And desks must be spaced at least three feet apart. Schools are also being encouraged to keep students with the same group throughout the day, meaning activities like lunch will likely take place in individual classrooms next year. Districts will not be required to provide each child a face mask, however they are encouraged to have extras on hand in case a student comes to school without one.
"Our goal for the fall is to safely bring back as many students as possible to in-person school settings, to maximize learning and address our students’ holistic needs," said Massachusetts Education Commissioner Jeff Riley in a memo attached to the guidance.
The guidelines in the document are mostly voluntary. State officials wanted to give superintendents flexibility to implement policies that fit their unique circumstance.
The document stopped short of instituting one of the more controversial requirements: classroom occupancy limits. That parts from the current policy in place for summer school that limits class sizes to no more than 10 students. State education leaders are also not going to require daily temperature checks due to the high likelihood of a false positive.
The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education recommends that school leaders prepare for three potential scenarios in the fall: returning to 100% in-person instruction, a hybrid model that includes some remote instruction, and 100% remote instruction.
The reopening guidelines also did not weigh in on specific dates for when schools can begin in-person instruction. Regulations around busing and transportation are expected later this summer.
The recommendations were developed over the last two months using input from about 50 education stakeholders as part of the "Return To School Working Group."
One member of the working group, incoming president of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics Dr. Lloyd Fisher, said at a press conference with Gov. Baker on Thursday that the reopening guidelines "appropriately take into consideration the many complexities involved in reopening, and outline the precautions necessary to maximize benefit to children while minimizing risk to them and those they interact with.”
Fisher added that the decision to reopen schools was made with students' mental and emotional health in mind.
“While for most children COVID-19 has not had the devastating and life-threatening physical health effects that have occurred in adults, the negative impact on their education, mental health and social development has been substantial," he said. “Nothing can take the place of the daily face-to-face interaction our children experience when attending school in person.”
Raquel Quezada, a Massachusetts parent with a child who has cerebral palsy, also spoke at the press conference. She said that remote learning has been challenging for all parents, but especially for those who also work full-time and — in particular — for those with children who have special needs, who often receive specialized care and education at school.
“Life is not about fear," Quezada said. “Children need to get their lives back, and parents too.”
A recent MassInc statewide poll that was conducted before Thursday’s guidelines were released suggests that 64% of parents in the state were very confident that schools could reopen safely. However those confidence levels vary widely when broken down by race. Black and Laxinx parents were the least confident in the schools ability to reopen safety (48% and 44% respectively). They were also most likely to favor just waiting to reopen classes when a normal schedule is possible.
“There is a noticeable overlap with demographic groups that have had a direct experience with COVID,” said Steve Koczela the president of the MassINC Polling Group. “If you’ve seen your family members go through the symptoms or be diagnosed with it, that’s likely to impact your views on school reopening.”
Districts have a lot of work to do this summer to make sure they’re prepared between the new required planning documents and negotiating new working conditions with teacher and staff unions.
“The challenge that everyone is feeling is not only coming up with those plans, but how do you move on that continuum depending on what’s happening with the virus,” said Tom Scott, the executive director with the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.
Superintendents said the lingering questions over state education budgets are also making the planning process difficult. Joseph Sawyer, the superintendent of Shrewsbury Public Schools said following the guidelines would likely require more funding to cover things like PPE and sanitizer. Districts are also hoping to bring in more school counselors to help students who may have experienced trauma because of the pandemic.
“Not knowing the level of staffing we’ll have to be able to execute the kind of planning and work that will need to happen to come back to school in the fall is probably the most complex work that school administrators have done in their career,” Sawyer said.
Massachusetts teachers also shared concerns over how the plans will be executed next year. Joellen Persad, a science teacher at the Madison Park Vocational Technical High School in Boston Public Schools, said she’s concerned about one of the guidelines that mandates schools offer students a remote learning option if their parents don’t feel safe sending them to in-person classes.
“That is so much work to now have to plan for online learning as well as in-person learning,” Persad said.
She’s also worried about how much stress the new guidelines will place on students.
“Relationships can be built with masks on," Persad said. "But when you are in this sterile environment where every three seconds the thought ‘Is is your mask on?’ — that does not allow the brain to relax and for knowledge and information to be absorbed."
Officials with the Massachusetts Advocates for Children said the guidelines are a good start. Liza Hirsch, a senior attorney with the organization applauded the state’s “thoroughly researched and careful approach consulting public health experts and a variety of stakeholders.”
But she stressed that addressing students’ social and emotional needs will be challenging.
“Students will likely be coming into school with more social and emotional challenges from having been isolated from their communities for an extended period of time,” said Hirsch.
Hirsch acknowledged that more details will likely be released as the school year gets closer, but she hopes planning around trauma and equity are top priorities.
“I think there needs to be very careful planning on the part of the state and individual districts regarding providing instruction focused around closing the opportunity and achievement gap,” she said. “Which was already significant prior to COVID and it only widened since COVID-19.”
This article was originally published on June 25, 2020.
This segment aired on June 25, 2020.