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Vaccinating educators is a start, but more challenges ahead on reopening schools

Jaden Gomes sanitized the desk he used in his algebra class at Brockton High School.
Jaden Gomes sanitized the desk he used in his algebra class at Brockton High School.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Many educators around Massachusetts were elated after Governor Charlie Baker announced on Wednesday that they will soon be eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations, but they say many other challenges remain unresolved before full-time in-person learning can resume at many schools.

Inoculating the state’s approximately 400,000 educators, school employees, and child care workers could take more than a month as they compete for limited appointments with hundreds of thousands of other eligible residents.

And even with school staff getting vaccinated — if they choose to do so — students won’t be eligible for some time, a divide that will require schools to continue with social distancing, which in many cases greatly diminishes classroom capacity. Other factors that could complicate reopening schools include incomplete ventilation upgrades, union negotiations over safety measures, and potential increases in infection rates.

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“The vaccine is a big piece of the puzzle, but it’s not the only piece,” said Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union. “Teachers would like nothing more [than] to have their students back in the classroom, but it has to be done safely with the right protocols in place to ensure there is no school or community transmission.”

Tang said students are still at risk of catching the virus from each other and bringing it back to their homes and communities.

The CDC in its updated guidance last month said in-person learning in schools has not been associated with substantial community transmission.

The question of how to safely reopen schools could take on greater urgency Friday. The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education abruptly moved its monthly meeting ahead three weeks to consider a request from Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley to give him the authority to force districts to fully open their classrooms.

Under his proposal, districts would have a reduced ability to count remote learning as instructional hours to meet state minimum standards. Riley has said he would phase in a full return, starting with elementary schools in April, and will create a waiver process for those districts that can’t comply, although details haven’t been hashed out.

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If the board approves Riley’s request, the move is expected to renew emotional debates over whether schools should strictly enforce the standard guideline of 6 feet of social distancing or go with a shorter distance. While CDC guidelines stress that 6 feet is preferable when feasible, Massachusetts guidelines allow districts to provide as little as 3 feet, a standard that a growing number of medical professionals are endorsing over the objections of many teachers. Parents have been split on the issue.

The 3-foot standard is based on recommendations from the World Health Organization last summer and an analysis published by The Lancet that examined 44 studies on distancing measures. The analysis found that a little more than 3 feet of distancing — plus masks and goggles — provided a good degree of protection from the coronavirus, although 6 feet was better.

Research is underway in Massachusetts to determine if there is any difference in protection between 3 and 6 feet in classrooms.

“There are a lot of hard choices ahead,” said Judy Evans, superintendent of Winchester schools, where an enrollment boom in recent years has led to crowded classrooms. “Even at 3 feet we cannot fit all students in many rooms.”

Vaccinating teachers, she said, will be a big help in alleviating concerns about the virus.

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Boston Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said any changes to 6 feet of social distancing would require approval from the Boston Public Health Commission, which reviews all COVID-19-related safety measures in the school system. Boston is using the 6-feet standard not only in its classrooms but also on buses, even though state school transportation guidelines no longer call for social distancing. The strict adherence, which aims to address safety concerns among bus drivers and parents, limits how many students the district can transport.

“I do think as we get more staff vaccinated and the community [COVID-19 positivity] rates continue to go down that there is a potential . . . that the Boston Public Health Commission will allow us to go lower than 6 feet,” Cassellius said. “That also would require some conversations with our union partners.”

Some districts in Massachusetts have already managed to pull off a full return, but it has been a heavy lift.

Medway, a small town southwest of Boston along Route 495, gradually reopened its elementary school classrooms this year full time, starting first with its lower grades in the fall. The effort has required hiring about a dozen teachers to create additional classrooms to accommodate 6 feet of distancing and hiring another dozen teachers for students who are learning online. About 90 percent of students have opted for in-person learning.

The school system is now figuring out how to provide five days of in-person learning for middle and high schools in April.

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The effort has been multifaceted, including testing for students and staff. Overall, the district’s pandemic-related expenses have amounted to $3 million out of its $28 million budget. Superintendent Armand Pires said the district is fortunate to have space in its schools due to declining enrollment, and the necessary financial resources.

The district is relying on an infusion of state and federal aid and the surplus that amassed from closing schools last spring, which led to reduced costs for busing, electricity, heat, and other expenditures.

The school system has found no evidence of in-school transmission, Pires said, but the district has recorded about 115 coronavirus cases among students and staff since the school year began.

“This has required a strong level of trust that doesn’t exist in every district,” he said, noting that the district has a strong relationship with its unions and that parents were willing to transfer their children midyear into newly created classrooms.

Still, vaccinating educators is a huge effort that requires more planning, said Beth Kontos, president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts. Most significantly, she said, the state needs to develop a system specifically for school personnel to sign up for the vaccine, noting that when the state posts its appointments each Thursday at 8 a.m. most educators are already teaching.

“When they are done teaching and log on, any added vaccines will be gone,” Kontos said. “That’s why I don’t want to rush to that happy place because we are not there yet. My inner self wants to dance in the street but I’m holding back a bit.”

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Governor Charlie Baker said Wednesday that the state’s command center is expected to designate specific days at mass vaccination sites for educators, although details are not yet available.


James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.