Districts urged to prioritize physical return to school this fall. Here’s what the new guidelines say.

“As we all know, there is no substitute for the attention and engagement that is only possible with in person learning."

–Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe

The return to school is a summer away, but state education officials have released their initial guidelines for the fall with a clear goal in mind – bring back as many students to school in person as possible.

But school will look much different than it did prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, with masks required for students in grades 2 and up, and students separated into groups that don’t mix with other groups throughout the day.

Districts also have much planning and preparation ahead. While the goal is to have students physically in the school building, school officials will need to plan a “hybrid” model – having groups of students switch off between in-person and remote learning, either on certain days of the week or alternating every other week, as well as a plan for all-remote instruction.

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The release of the initial state guidelines follows state officials sending out a plan earlier this month for schools on personal protective equipment and supplies required for this fall.

In-person learning hinges on whether Massachusetts’ COVID-19 cases continue to drop, as shown by recent data.

“Part of our responsibility as educators, administrators, and parents is to do all that we can to help our children in this difficult time,” Jeffrey Riley, the state’s Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education, wrote in a letter accompanying the guidelines. “As we all know, there is no substitute for the attention and engagement that is only possible with in-person learning. We can mitigate the risks associated with COVID-19 for in-person school programs and prevent the significant consequences of keeping students out of school and isolated. It will take all of us working together to make this successful.”

While districts are urged to devise the multiple plans deemed necessary by the state, there should be “a focus first and foremost” on having students return to school in person, the guidelines say.

Returning to school in person is supported by infectious disease doctors and other “medical advisors” state officials worked with, according to the guidelines, and state officials believe that if the safety guidelines are followed “the risk of transmission in schools is likely lower than the risks of transmission in many other settings.”

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Citing data from studies in other places, schools aren’t thought to have been places where a high amount of transmission occurred. Plus, kids also were shown to be far less at risk of contracting COVID-19 than adults.

“In Massachusetts, children under the age of 19 were about four times less likely than the population at large to be diagnosed with COVID-19,” the guidelines say. “Children are more likely to be asymptomatic, however, which underscores the importance of health behaviors for everyone (masks/face coverings, distancing, handwashing, surfacing cleaning).”

“With adherence to a comprehensive set of critical health and safety requirements, we can bring our students, staff, and families safely back to school,” the guidelines say.

State officials are also encouraging students to get a flu vaccine, considering that the symptoms are similar to COVID-19, and kids “are frequent transmitters” of it.

To help districts implement the necessary safety protocols, the state is planning to provide more money to school districts to help. While there are federal grants available to districts, the state intends to provide $202 million in grants, with $182 million of that set aside as “formula grants” to be divided up per student, amounting to $225 each. The remaining $20 million will be used by the commissioner to be given to districts with “unmet needs,” provided at his discretion. Plus, the state intends to provide an additional $25 million for technology grants.

When returning to school, state guidelines highlight these essential practices:

  • Mask wear for all students grades 2 and up, with kids in kindergarten and grade 1 “encouraged” to wear them;
  • All adults, including teachers, must wear masks;
  • Exceptions are made for those with a disability or medical condition;
  • Students should be allowed mask breaks, while standing 6 feet apart and “ideally” going outside or “at least with the windows open”;
  • Families should send their kids to school with a mask – districts should use grant money to help families for whom this could be a financial hardship;
  • Everyone riding the bus has to wear them;
  • Consider a transparent mask which could be helpful for younger students, plus students who are deaf or hard of hearing.

In classrooms, districts should “aim for six feet” between people, but there should be at least three feet of space at all times “when combined with other measures.” This means desks should be spaced this way, and facing the same way. When using other areas of the school, like the cafeteria, auditorium, or library, everyone should be spaced “the maximum distance possible”

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For elementary schools, students should be put in groups and remain with that group throughout the day, and for those at middle and high schools, officials should try to limit the amount of mixing of students.

The state hasn’t put a maximum capacity on group sizes, noting that a limit isn’t required as long as students are distanced properly. Schools also won’t be screening or taking temperatures when students enter the building.

Districts will need to submit plans for all three learning models – in-person, hybrid, and remote – by August to the state, the guidelines say.


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