However, the guidelines leave perhaps the biggest question unanswered: the exact date students will return to classroom instruction. State Commissioner of Education Jeffrey Riley, in an open letter preceding the guidelines, tells school leaders that they will need to prepare three possible instructional approaches for this fall: a large-scale return to school, a combination of face-to-face and remote learning, or simply distance learning.
The state guidelines are a combination of requirements and recommendations for local school districts.
Governor Charlie Baker is expected to release the guidelines Thursday.
“Our goal for the fall is to safely bring as many students as possible to school settings in person, to maximize learning and to address the holistic needs of our students,” the document says. “There is a clear consensus between education and medical groups: We must consider 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. . While remote learning has improved during school closings, there is no substitute for in-person instruction. ”
The lack of clarity adds to the immense uncertainty surrounding the unpredictable course of the coronavirus pandemic. While new infection rates are declining across the state, rates are increasing rapidly elsewhere, raising concerns that the virus could increase again in Massachusetts this summer or fall as the state slowly tries to return to some level of normal.
The guidelines have been in development since May with input from a working group of dozens of educators, parents, public health experts, and safety experts. State officials also reviewed the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization and also consulted with the state Medical Advisory Board of the COVID-19 Command Center.
“In conversations with infectious disease physicians, other medical advisers, and the COVID-19 Command Center Medical Advisory Board, we were encouraged to hear that, based on current data and research, the medical community supports the return of our students in-person learning, with appropriate safety and health barriers in place, ”set the guidelines.
Districts across the state have been eagerly awaiting publication of the guidelines.
Local authorities have hoped that the initial guidelines will provide the answers they need to plan for the reopening of the school after in-person instruction stopped in mid-March on Baker’s order to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. The exact focus of instruction this fall, in person, remotely, or a combination, could have major implications on staff and expense.
Newton Superintendent David Fleishman said that while he has not seen the final draft, he is pleased to hear, based on the highlights that have been revealed to him, that the goal is to get as many students back to school as possible. .
“Bringing students back to important learning is essential, and I hope we can bring in as many students and staff as possible in a healthy and safe way,” said Fleishman. “This will require a lot of work.”
Focusing on the students’ health, safety, anti-racism and mental health needs is essential, all of which is “critical given the time frame.”
Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, chastised state officials for developing guidelines without consulting all stakeholders.
“This cannot continue to be the new norm,” Tang said. “We were not at the table during the creation of these guidelines. We are on the front line interacting with students every day, evaluating their well-being and helping them with their educational and basic needs. By excluding us from the discussion, [the state] it is discounting our experiences and ignoring the realities of those who will be most affected by these guidelines. “
The working group included various parents, teachers, and students.
Some of the guidelines are similar to those the state recently issued to districts on how much personal protective equipment they should order this fall, based on a variety of scenarios about the frequency of students attending school in person. And the report maintains one of the most controversial recommendations: put the burden of providing masks to students on their families. However, the document encourages districts to have disposable masks on hand in case a student shows up without one.
Among the other guidelines of the document:
– Cafeterias, gyms, libraries and other large spaces should be established to promote as much social distance as possible.
– School nurses must wear additional protection, such as face shields and goggles, when directly treating students. Students suspected of having COVID-19 must be relocated to a previously designated room for such isolation.
– There will be no uniform limit on the number of students in a classroom, presumably because the square footage of rooms can vary greatly. Instead, schools should determine class sizes based on how many can be taught with social distancing. This recommendation replaces the guidance for summer programs that limited class size to 10 students.
– Districts should consider surveying families multiple times during the summer and potentially throughout the school year. Districts and schools can use the survey to help determine things like which children will return to school in person and who needs access to the Internet and technology or bus transportation.
Transportation guidelines will be published at a later date.
The guidelines say that students should be safe at school with the appropriate safety measures in place because “we believe that the risk of transmission in our schools is probably less than the risks in many other community settings. Furthermore, based on available data and effective implementation of critical health and safety practices, the transmission rate at school has been low. ”
“We recognize that planning to reopen in this ‘new normal’ will not be easy; We also know that planning is not as important, or as difficult, as execution, ” the guidelines say. “To have a successful school year, we will all have to solve problems, be flexible and respond to the data, and be willing to correct the course as necessary. It is also important to recognize that there will be positive cases of COVID-19 in schools, and we will have protocols in place to help you determine the appropriate next steps when this occurs to keep the school community safe. ”