With just weeks before Massachusetts students return to classrooms, school administrators, teachers, and parents alike are trying to decide how to keep themselves and their children safe, especially as the Delta variant continues its rapid spread.
Governor Charlie Baker and state education leaders have taken a localized approach, releasing statewide mask-wearing guidance for schools but emphasizing that individual districts should determine what COVID-19 protocols are best for their communities. The state announced in May that all of its coronavirus health and safety requirements would be lifted for the 2021-22 academic year.
“Giving locals the opportunity to own the decisions they make is a big and important issue,” Baker told reporters while visiting Peabody High School on Monday. “And if you look at what’s playing out in other states right now, where state government has taken away the authority for locals to make their own decisions, that’s not the right way to play this game. It’s just not.”
Baker has steadfastly defended that position, even as he faces pressure from state teachers unions to mandate masks in buildings and consider other coronavirus-related protocols. The board of directors of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the largest educators union in the state, voted earlier this month to push state leaders to enact a universal mask-wearing mandate in schools and this week to support a vaccine mandate for staff and eligible students.
Here is what school in Massachusetts will look like this fall, as of mid-August:
State education commissioner Jeffrey Riley unveiled a proposal Friday that would require all students and staff members to wear masks indoors through Oct. 1; the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will vote on the plan Tuesday.
Under the rules, middle and high schools that hit 80 percent vaccinated students and staff by Oct. 1 would be allowed to lift the mandate for vaccinated people; unvaccinated people would have to remain masked.
Prior to Riley’s proposal, the state strongly recommended that all students in kindergarten through sixth grade (the vast majority of whom are unvaccinated) and other unvaccinated students and staff members in all grades wear masks indoors. Masks are already required on school buses and in school health offices.
In the earlier guidance, masks were not explicitly recommended for vaccinated students, or while anyone is outdoors or eating.
In lieu of a statewide requirement, many districts have chosen to enact their own mask mandates for everyone, vaccinated or not. Boston Public Schools, for example, will require all students to wear masks.
Physical distancing requirements have been lifted for the 2021-22 academic year, so schools no longer will be required to separate desks or students by at least 3 feet.
All Massachusetts schools are required to have school in person five days a week. The only exceptions are pathways that already existed prior to the pandemic, such as home/hospital tutoring programs due to a documented medical condition and single-district virtual schools.
In addition to the two virtual schools that already exist in Massachusetts — Greenfield Commonwealth Virtual School and TEC Connections Academy Commonwealth Virtual School — seven districts plan to open virtual schools this fall, according to a state spokeswoman: Attleboro, Brockton, Chelsea, Peabody, Pittsfield, Springfield, and Westfield.
Some school administrators told the Globe the state’s refusal to allow remote learning in case of COVID-19 outbreaks has forced them to create their own contingency plans, such as preparing weeks of homework for students if they’re forced to go home.
There are no statewide vaccine mandates currently in effect for eligible students, educators, or school staff members.
Some districts, such as Boston and Lexington, have created requirements that teachers either be vaccinated or submit to weekly coronavirus testing.
COVID-19 pooled testing
The state will offer both diagnostic and routine (weekly) COVID-19 pooled testing services to districts at no cost through CIC Health.
Districts are strongly recommended to participate in both testing services “to minimize the impact of quarantining due to exposure to COVID-19,” the state wrote on its website.
There are two types of diagnostic testing: one for symptomatic individuals and another called “test and stay” for people who have had close contact with someone who tested positive. With routine COVID-19 pooled testing, the samples of students and staff who participate are put in a single tube and tested together. If the group tests positive, individual follow-up testing is administered.
What happens when someone tests positive for COVID-19?
The state released a detailed memo last week detailing what school districts should do when someone tests positive for the coronavirus.
A few highlights:
- Determine if the person who tested positive was at school during the two days prior to the onset of symptoms or prior to testing positive, if asymptomatic. If yes, clean and disinfect any space the person spent time in.
- Communicate with staff members and families of close contacts.
- If the school finds out about a positive COVID-19 case in the middle of the day, any symptomatic close contacts should be masked and when feasible, they should stay in a separate room with the door closed until they can be picked up.