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Reopening of public schools this fall would come with daunting issues

Schools need a plan for everything from bus rides to hand-washing to assessing the damage from a spring of online learning

Bus capacity would be drastically reduced under social distancing guidelines.
Bus capacity would be drastically reduced under social distancing guidelines.Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

State and city school officials haven’t made a firm commitment yet as to when Massachusetts public schools might reopen for a number of good reasons. Before they can welcome a million students back to their classrooms, administrators must resolve a seemingly endless series of hard questions.

How do you load elementary school children onto a bus while keeping them 6 feet apart?

How do you protect the estimated 20 percent of teachers who are 55 or older from getting seriously ill?

How do you serve lunch?

And that’s before you even get to the money problem: Running a school is about to get a lot more expensive, just as the crashing economy may force state and local governments to cut school budgets.

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“It’s like playing badminton in a windstorm,” said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. “The questions are endless. The more you talk about it, the more issues you identify.”

Scott is part of a new working group convened by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to help draft guidelines for school-reopening — initial portions of which he hoped would be released next month. The 44-member working group, which includes public health officials, school superintendents, teachers, and other education leaders, has begun examining issues and is reviewing reentry plans from other countries and states.

But those expecting a complete road map in the short term may be disappointed. Department officials declined even to provide a timeline for when they’d release the recommendations. Many reopening details will depend on how the pandemic unfolds this summer, and the state will likely leave some hard decisions up to local officials in the roughly 400 school districts.

Nevertheless, in recent testimony before a legislative committee, state Education Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley described potential recommendations that could make school look markedly different than before the pandemic, including the extensive reliance on social distancing, expanded mental health services, and the possible need for students and staff to wear masks.

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In addition, Riley said schools may need to develop plans for “potential extended school closings.” He held out the possibility that schedules will need to be modified, and that at least some classes may continue to be taught remotely.

“The plan will include guidance on physical and virtual learning environments and many other topics," Riley said in a statement.

Riley declined to provide an outline for when schools might resume in-person classes, saying only that officials were beginning to map out a plan to reopen schools “when conditions are right.”

A department spokeswoman declined to say when that might be. “It’s just too soon to talk about school reopening,” she said.

Boston school Superintendent Brenda Cassellius struck a similarly cautious tone on providing a timeline for reopening the city’s 125 schools. There are just too many unknowns — including the possibility of a fall surge in COVID-19 cases — to provide even a tentative reopening date.

“It just depends on if we get through these phases [of reopening the state] successfully,” she said. “At this point we are still sheltering, and until we hit all the indicators, that will be our reality.”

New guidance from the federal government suggests school could be a lot less fun when it finally does reopen. Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call for a three-step approach that includes reduced student movement within schools, canceled field trips and extracurricular activities, and meals that are served in classrooms. Staff should wear masks. Students and teachers should undergo daily temperature and symptom checks if possible, and high-risk staff should be allowed to work remotely.

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Ultimately, the number of restrictions and safety measures is likely to vary from district to district, depending on the prevalence of the virus. But schools in Massachusetts, which has the fourth most cases in the country, are likely to be among the most disrupted.

“You could have school in Montana where school is functioning pretty normally, but there may be rolling closures in New York and Boston,” said John Bailey, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

“Hopefully these disruptions only impact this coming academic year,” he added, noting that vaccine development often takes at least 18 months. “If that is really the timeline, it means all these disruptions not just for this coming academic school year, but the following one, too.”

The problems start the moment a student climbs aboard the bus.

Cassellius estimated that, under current physical distancing guidelines, a school bus that typically holds around 65 students might be reduced to around 13 passengers. For Boston, which already has the second highest per-pupil transportation costs in the country, expanding bus service would be astonishingly expensive.

And that’s just the beginning. Are those students given a health check before boarding and, if so, who would do it? What if they arrive without a mask? How often must the buses be cleaned? And that’s to say nothing of the health and safety of the drivers.

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“Half of our bus drivers are older than 60,” said Cassellius, who’s a member of the working group. “You can only imagine the contingencies we are building in terms of our fleet, in terms of our scheduling.”

It gets no easier once students arrive at school.

Just consider hand washing, which by some estimates could take nearly as long as some classes.

“I’ve seen some scenarios where they may recommend kids wash their hands every hour,” said Billerica Public Schools Superintendent Tim Piwowar, who’s part of the working group. For a class of 12 students, he said, each taking about 30 seconds to wash their hands, the loss in learning time could be staggering. “That’s six minutes of every hour. That’s a little over half an hour every day — of just hand washing.”

And what about the availability of on-site health care?

Jenny Gormley, president of the Massachusetts School Nurse Organization, said schools are running low on personal protective gear after donating their supplies to hospitals and emergency responders. She added that many schools do not currently have a full-time nurse on staff. Meanwhile, in Boston, Cassellius said that roughly a third of all school nurses are older than 60.

The CDC’s guidelines call for each school to create an “isolation room” to separate anyone who presents with COVID-like symptoms — further instructing school officials to wait 24 hours before disinfecting it after use. That’s going to be a major concern in urban districts such as Lynn, which are already over capacity.

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“In a school of 500, at least two kids come to you every day with a fever,” said Gormley. “The CDC is saying it should not be used for 24 hours and disinfected — so does that mean we’ll need two of them?”

Under current social distancing requirements, some classes may have to shrink to a third of their former size. So will students attend school in morning and afternoon shifts? Will they alternate days? Weeks? Even so, how do you keep first-graders from touching one another? And what will cleaning costs look like?

School leaders say remote learning is likely to continue to play some role when schools resume in-person classes. For instance, students could alternate days at home with days in school. But if teachers are expected to hold physical classes each day, who will staff online learning? Will classes have both in-person and online learners? Will districts have to hire more teachers? Will they enlist more subs? Will it fall to existing faculty?

Those contracts may need to be amended, just as districts are bargaining with any number of other groups, from custodial and cafeteria workers, to private vendors that provide protective gear.

Scott, of the superintendents association, said state government has a role to play in bringing unions and districts together.

“We don’t want to end up having every district have to bargain every aspect of reopening,” he said. “We’ll never get there.”

The talks will take place in what is arguably the worst economy since the Great Depression. And while legislators passed the $1.5 billion Student Opportunity Act last year, last year, a number of leaders are now calling on Washington to provide additional financial support.

“We will need a New Deal level of funding from the federal government,” said Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

One of the first tasks when students return to school will be to figure out their academic levels after the most disrupted school year in decades. Some students will have lost more ground than others, requiring educators to come up with individualized plans to catch students up.

In addition to potential educational backsliding, many students will be returning to school with fresh trauma, be it a parent out of work, a death in the family, or months locked away with abusive relatives.

Cassellius said trauma in schools is typically confined to, say, the death of an individual student or teacher, which often affects the entire school community.

“What you have now is every single child, every single family, and every single adult within the community being impacted by this pandemic,” she said. “It’s unbelievable the amount of trauma that we’re going to have.”

What’s more, the virus threatens to exacerbate longstanding social inequalities in a school system already marked by vast gaps in student opportunity and achievement. For example, more than 20 percent of Boston public school students have likely not logged on to one of the district’s main online platforms this month; many of those students were the most disadvantaged, including many English language learners.

“Whatever gaps existed before are going to be even wider, because this crisis has exacerbated the disparities for children in their learning circumstances outside of school,” said Paul Reville,a former state education secretary. “Some children have virtually 24/7 stimulation enrichment, others have virtually nothing.”

Similarly, Jal Mehta, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, said the crisis offers an opportunity to fundamentally rethink how we educate students going forward. For example, since teachers’ in-person time with students will likely be limited, perhaps schools should concentrate on a few subjects in greater depth, while pruning away breadth in others, sort of like a college major.

“You’ve got to treat the contact time as gold,” said Mehta. “You want to think about what can we do in person that we couldn’t do at home, and vice versa.”

Others suggested holding tutorial sessions for low income students over the summer and other vacations — not unlike affluent families who send their kids to math camp. Still others called on schools to develop individual learning plans for all students, creating a more customized approach.

All of this, of course, will take money — lots of it.

“That’s going to be really where the shoe pinches,” said Reville, who warned against regarding a return to the status quo as a victory.

"That would be a gigantic wasted opportunity.”




Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay