Two physicians told the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education Tuesday that it would be best for students to return to school in person in the fall, citing necessary services many students receive.
"We believe it is safe to return to in person learning," Dr. Sandra Nelson, an infectious disease specialist with Mass General Hospital, told the group. "We know children are less likely to be infected with COVID ... and there are some signals that children are less likely to transmit COVID than other infectious illnesses."
Even kids with risk factors like asthma and Type I Diabetes still appear to be at a low risk of contracting the disease or being significantly harmed by it.
School closures were helpful in containing the initial outbreak of COVID-19 in the state, according to the physicians, but they acknowledged that the aggressive move did have a negative impact on some students, particularly those with special education needs and English learners.
"For the many children who rely on the schools for these necessary services, for the children from under privileged backgrounds who were really unable to engage in the full offerings of remote learning, I feel we need to get children back to school in person," said Dr. Lloyd Fisher, incoming president of the Massachusetts Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Education Commissioner Jeff Riley invited the two physicians to answer board member questions about the plan's public health risks. Nelson and Fisher told BESE members that they believed the state's reopening guidelines, which include steps like mandatory face coverings, hand washing recommendations and physical distancing requirements, will be effective.
"It really minimizes the risks while maximizing the benefits to our students," added Fisher.
Nelson also argued that moving forward with the planning process and prioritizing in-person instruction is the right way forward at this point.
"[COVID-19] is going to be part of our world no matter if we have vaccines or treatments," Nelson said. "It’s not going to be gone in a year. We really need to figure out how to adapt to this new world. I believe this is the safest way to do that."
But Amanda Fernandez was one of the board members to raise concerns over the guidance. She argued that while Nelson and Fisher's scientific analysis makes sense when it comes to risk, the policies don't fully take into account the fact that parents still have lingering concerns.
"I'm a parent of middle school children and what we also don't have in the conversation is the perspectives of the community," said Fernandez. "I'm hearing about the deep divides that exist around going back and that is a really important factor."
She also noted that Nelson and Fisher's comments didn't touch on safety concerns among teachers and other school staff.
Board member Mary Ann Stewart added that districts are also struggling right now because they're being asked to make these reopening plans without knowing the state budget.
"It’s true. We don’t have a budget which creates a great deal of uncertainty," said Massachusetts Education Secretary Jim Peyser in response. "As much as it feels like a chicken and egg issue we need to get working on the plans and understanding the operational and fiscal implications now. Those may actually inform the budget process."
The Massachusetts Teachers Association has said more than 2,000 teachers and paraprofessionals have received layoff and non-renewal notices in 47 districts.
Tuesday's meeting was the board's final scheduled meeting of the school year.