When schools across Massachusetts reopen this fall, it will be unlike the start of any other academic year: Students, starting in the second grade, and all adults will need to wear masks; desks will likely face forward, ideally 6 feet apart but not less than 3 feet; and students will likely eat breakfast and lunch in their classrooms, according to state guidelines obtained by the Globe Wednesday.
One measure the Initial Fall School Reopening Guidance doesn’t require: daily temperature checks before students enter the building, leaving that job up to parents. The guidelines also don’t mandate COVID-19 testing, at least at this time.
The guidelines, however, leave perhaps the biggest question unanswered: the exact date when students will actually return to in-class instruction. State Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley in an open letter that precedes the guidelines tells school leaders they will need to prepare three possible approaches to instruction for this fall: a full-scale return to school, a mix of in-person and remote learning, or just remote learning.
The state guidelines are a mix of requirements and recommendations for local school districts.
Governor Charlie Baker is expected to release the guidelines on Thursday.
“Our goal for the fall is to safely bring back as many students as possible to in-person school settings, to maximize learning and address our students’ holistic needs,‘' the document said. “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. While remote learning has improved over the course of the school closures, there is no substitute for in-person instruction.”
The lack of clarity adds to the immense uncertainty that surrounds the unpredictable course of the coronavirus pandemic. While new infection rates are declining across the state, rates are rapidly rising elsewhere, creating concerns that the virus could spike again in Massachusetts this summer or fall as the state slowly tries to return to some level of normalcy.
The guidelines have been under development since May with input from a working group of dozens of educators, parents, public health experts, and safety experts. State officials also reviewed recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization and also consulted the state COVID-19 Command Center’s Medical Advisory Board.
“In discussions with infectious disease physicians, other medical advisers, and the COVID-19 Command Center’s Medical Advisory Board, we were heartened to hear that — based on current data and research — the medical community supports the return of our students to in-person learning, with appropriate health and safety guardrails in place,” the guidelines state.
Districts statewide have been eagerly awaiting the release of the guidelines.
Local officials have hoped the initial guidelines would provide the answers they need to plan for the reopening of school after in-person instruction came to a grinding halt in mid-March under orders from Baker to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. The exact approach to instruction this fall — in-person, remote, or a mix — could have big implications on staffing and spending.
Newton Superintendent David Fleishman said that while he has not seen the final draft, he’s pleased to hear, based on highlights disclosed to him, that the focus is on getting more students back to school as possible.
“Getting students back to important learning is essential, and I’m hopeful that we are able to bring as many students and staff back as possible in a healthy and safe manner,‘' Fleishman said. “This will take a lot of work.”
He said it is essential to focus on health, safety, antiracism, and mental health needs of students, all of which are “critical given the time period.”
Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, chided state officials for releasing guidelines without consulting the BTU.
“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 frontlines interacting every day with the students, assessing their well-being, and assisting them with both educational and basic needs. By excluding us from the discussion, [the state] is discounting our experiences and ignoring the realities of those who will be most impacted by these guidelines.”
The working group included several parents, teachers, and students.
Some of the guidelines are similar to those the state recently issued to districts on how much personal protection equipment they should order this fall, based on a range of scenarios about the frequency of students attending school in person. And the report keeps one of the more controversial recommendations in place: putting the burden of providing masks to students on their families. The document, however, encourages the districts to have disposable masks on hand in case a student shows up without one.
Among the other guidelines in the document:
— Cafeterias, gyms, libraries, and other large spaces should be set up to promote the greatest amount of social distancing as possible.
— School nurses must wear extra protection, such as face shields and goggles, when directly treating students. Students suspected of having COVID-19 should be relocated to a room previously designated for such isolation.
— There will be no uniform cap 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 in place. This recommendation replaces guidance for summer programs that capped class sizes at 10 students.
— Districts should consider surveying families multiple times throughout the summer and potentially into the school year. Districts and schools can use the survey to help determine such things as which children will return to school in-person, and who need Internet and technology access or bus transportation.
Guidelines for busing will be released at a later date.
The guidelines say that students should be safe in school with the appropriate safety measures in place because “we believe that the risk of transmission at our schools is likely lower than the risks in many other community settings. Furthermore, based on available data and effective implementation of critical health and safety practices, the rate of in-school transmissions has been low.”
“We recognize that planning for reopening in this ‘new normal’ will not be easy; we also know that planning is not nearly as important – nor as difficult – as execution,‘’ the guidelines state. “To have a successful school year, we will all have to be problem-solvers, flexible and responsive to data, and willing to course-correct as necessary. It is also important to acknowledge that there will be COVID-19 positive cases in schools, and we will have protocols to help you determine the appropriate next steps when this happens to keep the school community safe.”