Governor Charlie Baker made it clear on Thursday that everyone needs to do what they can to get students safely back into classrooms this fall, but the guidelines he released left parents, teachers, and school officials eager for more details and anxious about what the coming months will hold.
“It just feels like restaurants have stricter guidelines than what you’re sending kids back to school” with, said Joellen Persad, a ninth-grade physics teacher at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School, who criticized the plan for not setting a cap on the number of students in classrooms and not mandating COVID-19 testing. “This does not feel safe. And when it does not feel safe, the brain is not in a state to learn.”
The long list of guidelines, first reported by the Globe Wednesday, attempt to balance a desire to resume in-person education with the continued need to keep students and staff safe from the coronavirus pandemic. They include a requirement that adults and most students wear masks and a recommendation that they eat breakfast and lunch in their classrooms. The new rules don’t require daily temperature checks. And they leave significant challenges for local officials.
One of the more eyebrow-raising aspects of the guidelines allows schools to provide as little as 3 feet of social distancing — despite the mantra of public health officials who have emphasized 6 feet of social distancing in public for months.
And with so much unknown about the course of the coronavirus in the coming months, the guidelines also charge superintendents with developing three different plans for learning this fall that will need to be vetted by the state education department: a full-scale return to school, a mix of in-person and remote instruction, and a continuation of only remote learning.
The guidelines do not provide a clear recommendation on whether the state should go back to in-person classes when school resumes in August and September, although state officials stress the goal is to have as many students attend as possible. Districts have not educated students in classrooms since mid-March.
“I’m not sure the general public appreciates how complicated this is,” Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said. “The challenge is enormous.”
Many superintendents, he said, are intrigued by allowing 3 feet of social distancing, but have questions about the research behind that measure and whether it will pass muster with teachers, students, and families.
Several teachers, parents, and elected officials around the region blasted the idea.
“I’m concerned that we’re trying to execute a delicate operation with a crowbar, forcing in as much physical attendance in school and that may really belie our efforts around ensuring health and safety,‘' said Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone.
Baker officially unveiled the guidelines at a press conference Thursday. In developing the guidelines, his administration considered the risks associated with COVID-19 for in-person schooling, he said, but also risks associated with continuing to keep students out of the classroom.
“Continued isolation poses very real risks to our kids’ mental and physical health, and to their educational development,‘' Baker said. “This plan will allow schools to responsibly do what is best for students, which is to bring them back to school to learn and grow.”
The state chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics endorsed the guidelines during the press conference.
“While for most children, COVID-19 has not had the devastating and life-threatening physical health effects that have occurred in adults, the negative impact on their education, mental health, and social development has been substantial,” said Dr. Lloyd Fisher, the incoming president of the state chapter.
Dr. Sandra Nelson, an infectious disease physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, said at the press conference that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation of 6 feet of distance is not always feasible in a school setting. But other measures, such as face coverings, help to keep students and staff safe in those situations.
She said many other countries — and also the World Health Organization — have endorsed a distance of 3 feet as the minimum distance for separation.
“Several modeling studies have been done which have looked at 3 feet of distance versus 6, and in settings of where the transmission risk is low, such as what we would expect in a school classroom, the incremental difference in transmission risk between 6 feet and 3 feet is not very high,” she said.
Several local school officials and statewide organizations, such as the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, faulted the guidelines for failing to adequately address the challenges of urban schools and other districts that mostly serve students from disadvantaged backgrounds and are already struggling with finances and aging buildings.
Roberto Jiménez Rivera, a Chelsea School Committee member, said the guidelines could result in a big divide between how aggressively districts can implement the most ideal measures.
“They assume all schools have rolling amounts of green space and large auditoriums, libraries, and cafeterias” to promote social distancing, he said, noting that in Chelsea the high school is already short on space, while its four elementary schools are located in a single building and two middle schools share a building.
Concerns over potential racial disparities in the guidelines went beyond social-distancing capabilities.
“Commissioner [Jeffrey] Riley states that the murder of George Floyd and inequity is one of the lenses used to write this plan, yet racism is not mentioned at all, nor connected to students’ mental health,‘' said Francis Pina, a teacher at Charlestown High School. “It must be identified in the future release regarding ‘teaching and learning’ as well as a clear understanding that students, who have been out of school buildings for nearly six months, may not be ready to engage in academics on day one nor week one.”
Boston Superintendent Brenda Cassellius has perhaps the biggest job of all: crafting three reopening plans in a district with about 125 schools and 55,000 students, most of whom live in poverty and many with profound disabilities or underlying health conditions. Yet the guidelines left one of the biggest questions unaddressed: How many students can ride on a bus? State guidance is not expected until sometime next month and it could have huge ramifications on how many students can be taught in person.
Cassellius is also assessing how many students can be taught in each building under social distancing. While some Boston buildings are underused, other schools are at full capacity. Cassellius’ team is reaching out to nonprofit partners and faith-based organizations about hosting classrooms.
Neiliana Lebron, a rising senior at Margarita Muñiz School in Jamaica Plain, had mixed reactions about the plan. She looks forward to seeing her friends, although it remains unclear to what extent she will be able to hang out with them. But she does not like the idea of wearing masks all day. Her asthma, combined with a mask, can make it difficult to breathe at times.
Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston chapter of the NAACP, said getting children safely back into school buildings is a noble goal, but argued that COVID-19 must fundamentally change the way public education is delivered.
“Our children have not received the education they are guaranteed under the constitution over the last 90 days,‘' Sullivan said.
Dacia Morales, a South End mother whose daughter Elianna is entering the sixth grade at the Eliot School, characterized the guidelines as cautious, but said she remains concerned for her daughter.
“I guess we have to follow [the guidelines] so we can be safe. But I’m a little worried because the classrooms in my daughter’s school are very small,‘' said Morales. She said research has shown that children are at lower risks of infections, but still she is worried.
Recognizing that implementing the guidelines will require more money, the Baker administration said Thursday it would allocate approximately $200 million from the Commonwealth’s federal Coronavirus Relief Fund for costs related to reopening public schools. Schools are eligible to receive up to $225 per student for eligible costs incurred due to the COVID-19 public health emergency, such as training for school staff, supplemental social and academic services, reconfiguration of school spaces, leasing of temporary facilities, and acquisition of health and hygiene supplies, according to officials.
Other potential funding sources to support school reopening include $502 million from the Coronavirus Relief Fund that had previously been allocated by Baker to cities and towns, as well as $194 million in federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund grants, the administration said.