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What to know about Boston schools’ COVID safety reopening plan

"We are trying to do everything in our power to keep your children safe."

Second-grade teacher Rachelle Milord teaches her class how to tell time at Mozart Elementary School in June. Lane Turner / The Boston Globe
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For the first time in two years, all Boston Public Schools students will begin the school year from inside an actual classroom.

State education officials have mandated students across the state return to in-person learning full time amid the COVID-19 pandemic following a chaotic year-and-a-half of remote and hybrid learning models.

In Boston, students in grades 1-12 report for class on Sept. 9, while pre-K and kindergarten students begin the 2021-2022 school year on Sept. 13.

With school now only weeks away, administrators have released the district’s plans for reopening safely during the continuing health crisis, particularly as the COVID-19 delta variant fuels a rise in cases and many of Boston’s school-age children — those under age 12 — are not yet eligible for a vaccine.

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Masks will be required at all times. Regular virus testing will be the norm (only for families who give their consent). And sick students stuck at home will have access to tutors.

“We are trying to do everything in our power to keep your children safe, keep them safe from bringing anything home,” Superintendent Brenda Cassellius told one anxious parent during a virtual meeting held on Tuesday night. “When you mask, when you get vaccinated — especially for older children — … and when we participate in the COVID testing, that really does mitigate the spread. And so we believe our schools are safe because of these measures.”

Here’s what to know about Boston Public Schools’ safety protocols this fall:

Masks

All people in Boston school buildings, regardless of vaccination status, will be required to wear a mask, a policy announced by acting Mayor Kim Janey last month. (State officials this week also authorized a similar policy for all schools in Massachusetts.)

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Masks, which should have a snug fit around the mouth and nose, will be required on school buses as well. Masks may only be removed if someone is outdoors during recess, on a mask break, or eating, officials said.

Cassellius said the district expects students to bring their own masks to school, but educators will have masks available for students who do not have one.

Testing, positive cases, & close contacts

Schools will offer free testing to students and staff. Parents and guardians must give consent for their students to be tested, according to Tuesday’s presentation. (An email to families with a link to the consent form was anticipated to go out within days of the meeting.)

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“At this point, we can’t force families to participate in the COVID testing, but we do highly encourage it, and we are going to continue to monitor that and try to get families to sign up for that,” Cassellius said.

According to Djenny Lobo Lopes, the district’s senior director of Health Services, group, or pooled, testing will be offered, with shallow nasal swabs.

“There’ll be two swabs for samples,” Lobo Lopes said. “One swab will be used for the pool or the group testing, and the other swab will be held by the lab, just in case there is a positive pool or group test result. If there is a positive pool, or group result, the lab will run a second test for everyone in that group to find out who has the positive test. And that result is then reported to Health Services.”

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This year, schools also have the ability to test symptomatic students and personnel, Lobo Lopes said.

Students who feel sick will receive a rapid test that produces a result within 15 minutes, she said.

“If a student is found to be COVID positive, they will be removed from the classroom and they will have to quarantine,” Cassellius said.

In the event of a positive case, Health Services will follow up with the sick student’s family and teacher for additional information, such as those the student may have recently come into contact with and who they sit near in class and on the bus, Lobo Lopes said.

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Families will be notified of each time there is a positive case within their child’s school, she said.

Students who are mandated to undergo a 10-day quarantine will have access to school materials online and a tutor, said Drew Echelson, deputy superintendent of academics.

“Likely, we’ll be working with schools to make sure that there’s a touch point for members of the school through the student or through the family,” Echelson said.

Close contacts of an infected person will follow steps outlined by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s “Test and Stay” model.

Those individuals will receive a rapid test once a day for at least five days from the first day of exposure, Lobo Lopes said.

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“If your child’s test is negative, your child can continue to stay in school and continue to get tested for the next five days,” Lobo Lopes said. “If the days fall on a weekend, your child should quarantine and continue with the ‘Test and Stay’ when they return to school to complete the five days of testing.

“This testing will allow for students not to miss any class time,” she added.

Remote learning

Unlike last year, the vast majority of students will not be attending classes remotely, nor will they have the option to do so, officials said.

Aside from students who receive class materials while in quarantine, other students who will be learning from home are those who have a specific medical exemption, according to Cassellius.

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Echelson said district officials were still reviewing guidance around the issue released by DESE last week, but they know there are “limited cases” in which remote learning will be available.

“We will, in the days to come, provide clarity about a process for communicating your desire to have a remote option for your child,” Echelson said. “In order for that sort of request to be approved, you would need to submit a letter from a doctor that establishes a medical condition for your child that would require your child to have remote learning.”

That request would then be reviewed, Echelson said.

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Asked what circumstances would prompt a school to return to fully remote learning for all students, Lobo Lopes said the district currently does not have specifics on any sort of potential threshold.

Cassellius said, however, the district does not anticipate pivoting back to remote or hybrid learning models this year.

There could be an instance where an entire class must be held remotely, but the situation is unlikely to happen given the “Test and Stay” testing model, Cassellius said.

“If we do get to a place of wanting to close a classroom or school, a decision would be made in collaboration with the Boston Health Commission, and it would be considered, you know, a public health risk at that point,” Cassellius said.

Classrooms & buses

This year, the district has installed indoor air quality sensors that provide real-time reporting of air quality in classrooms, according to Samuel DePina, deputy superintendent of operations.

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Crews have spent the summer replacing filters to air purifiers that were placed in every classroom last year, he said.

“We will continue to have sanitation stations in hallways and classrooms with a three month supply of equipment stocked in all of our schools,” DePina said. “(Personal protective equipment) will be delivered to schools, so that in the event replacement PPE is needed for students, it’s available, as well as (for) staff.”

According to Casellius, administrators are encouraging at least three feet of physical distance between students whenever possible, although it is not required by DESE.

On buses, all individuals will be required to wear masks. Buses will be disinfected once a day, and per state guidelines, every other window will be open two inches to allow air flow, according to DePina.

Athletics

Interscholastic athletics started last week for grades 9 through 12, DePina said.

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With the return of fall sports, masks will be required for all indoor activities, he said.

“Additional athletic guidance is developing and ongoing, and as such, we will follow the most up to date, state MIAA guidelines,” he said.

Outstanding questions

Families who have questions about safety protocols or who want more information have several options, officials said:

Check out slides from the presentation below:

Back to School Community Meeting Slides 082421 by Christopher Gavin on Scribd

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