When students across Massachusetts return to school this fall, class will not resume like pre-COVID times.
State education officials released guidance Thursday offering a glimpse into what educators and families can expect for the 2020-2021 school year.
“Part of our responsibility as educators, administrators, and parents is to do all that we can to help our children in this difficult time,” said Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Jeffrey C. Riley. “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.”
The decision to reopen schools was based in part because of the lower infection rate of COVID-19 among children and the negative impact of keeping children out of the classroom.
With the return of in-person learning will come enhanced safety requirements.
All staff and students in second grade and older will be required to wear masks, supplied by their parent or guardian. Students in kindergarten and first grade will be encouraged, but not required to wear masks.
“Face shields may be an option for those students with medical, behavioral, or other challenges who are unable to wear masks/face coverings,” the guidance states. “Transparent masks may be the best option for both teachers and students in classes for deaf and hard of hearing students.”
Breaks from wearing masks will be scheduled throughout the day when social distancing allows.
Districts must also implement social distancing within schools. Schools are encouraged to space desks in the classroom at least 6 feet apart, though a minimum of 3 feet is mandated.
Schools will be asked to turn to alternative spaces - including cafeterias, libraries and auditoriums - to allow for more social distancing. Students will eat breakfast and lunch in the classroom instead of the cafeteria or common areas.
The guidance calls for students to spend as much time as possible with a single group of students, rather than shifting from room-to-room and mixing with other groups of students.
If sick, stay home:
State education officials will not mandate temperature checks on school grounds in the latest guidance, but will rely on families to screen their children prior to arrival at school.
If a student exhibits COVID-19 symptoms during the school day, they will be moved to an isolation room until they can be picked up by a parent or guardian. The room will be separate from the school nurse’s office.
Schools will implement an increased safety plan with regular cleaning of high-touch surfaces.
The 28-page guidance doesn’t address student transportation to-and-from school, which state officials say will be outlined later this summer.
Athletics and extracurriculars:
Both will be addressed in future guidance issued by the state.
As the number of coronavirus cases spread statewide in mid-March, schools were closed leaving educators to scramble to offer remote education through the end of the spring classes.
“There is a clear consensus from both education and medical groups: we must keep in mind not only the risks associated with COVID-19 for in-person school programs, but also the known challenges and consequences of keeping students out of school,” Riley said. “While remote learning has improved over the course of the school closures, there is no substitute for in-person instruction when it comes to the quality of students’ academic learning. In-person school plays an equally important role in our ability to support students’ social-emotional needs, including their mental and physical health, and in mitigating the impacts of trauma. We also recognize how disruptive school closures have been to families trying to maintain regular work schedules and manage household needs, including childcare, while also facilitating remote learning.”
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will mandate all districts prepare a reopening plan offering three learning models for the fall: in-person learning, a hybrid of in-person and remote learning and a continuation of remote learning.
Districts will be required to submit their plans to state education officials in August. Districts are encouraged to prioritize the return to in-person learning but local leaders will ultimately decide if it is feasible for their district.
A hybrid model would have students alternating between in-person and remote learning. “For instance, students could switch between in-person and remote learning on alternating weeks or days of the week,” the state guidance states. The state encourages prioritizing high-needs students - including including students with disabilities and English learners - for full-time in-person learning. It also recommends districts work with families who don’t have internet access and/or a dedicated device they can use for remote learning.
“Districts and schools must be prepared to be flexible and ready to pivot if circumstances change significantly,” Riley said.
Districts should expect some students to not return to the classroom this fall due to underlying medical conditions and must offer remote learning, state education officials said.