BOSTON — The state is recommending schools maintain social distancing of at least 6 feet and require masks for staff and children in Grade 2 and above.
And districts are required to create plans to start the school year in three different scenarios: in-person learning, remote learning and a hybrid model that could see students alternating in-person instruction on a daily or weekly basis.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on Thursday released its first round of reopening guidance for the commonwealth's primary and secondary schools.
"Continued isolation poses very real risks to our kids mental and physical health, and to their educational development," said Gov. Charlie Baker at Thursday afternoon's announcement of the guidance. "This plan will allow schools to responsibly do the best for students bring them back to school to learn and grow."
The Boston Globe obtained a leaked copy of the 24-page memo and published a story late Wednesday night. The commonwealth's superintendents received a briefing from the commissioner of education on Thursday morning.
There are parts of the school day that the memo does not attempt to address, and DESE promises future guidance this summer on transportation, extracurricular activities and how to handle COVID-19 positive cases within a school or district.
But the document, titled "Initial Fall School Reopening Guidance," will inform the deliberations already under way in school districts across the commonwealth as they think about how to return from the March shutdown necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The guidance was developed with input from medical experts, including the American Academy of Pediatricians.
Baker said the state will be providing another $200 million in funding for districts related to preparation costs in addition to the $502 million made available to municipalities for COVID-19 related costs and almost $200 million in federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund grants. The state is also committing $25 million in a federal matching grant program to fund technology purchases for remote learning.
"With DESE guidance and support with just about a billion dollars, school officials now have the information and the resources that they'll need to implement the needed distance requirements, classroom configuration, masks and face covering requirements and symptom checks to make this all happen," Baker said.
The commonwealth's objective: to get students back inside the schoolhouse as safely as possible.
"[We clearly] state our goal for this fall: the safe return of as many students as possible to in-person school settings, to maximize learning and address our students' holistic needs," reads the first page of the memo authored by Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley. "If the current positive public health metrics hold, we believe that by following critical health requirements, we can safely return to in-person school."
The commonwealth's guidance mandates that school districts must accommodate families who choose to keep their children at home for safety reasons.
"Families, in consultation with their medical providers, will ultimately make the decision as to whether their children will attend in-person instruction, or whether their children will continue with remote learning," the memo states on Page 7. "This means that all districts will need to have a remote learning program in place for students who are unable to return to in-person school."
It promises to be a busy July for school officials.
By August, DESE is requiring the submission of plans for September under each of the models, in-person, hybrid and remote.
And the DESE guidance recognizes that in-person school may not be possible at all -- either in September or later in the school year if there is a "second wave" of the novel coronavirus.
"All districts and schools are required to have a plan for operating a remote learning program," the memo reads on Page 14. "This model must be available for individual students who cannot yet return in-person and for all students in the event of future classroom or school closures due to COVID-19."
Although all schools were required to move to a remote learning model this spring, most families and educators recognize that the move was not perfect and districts have been discussing how to create a more productive remote model going forward. DESE promised more guidance on "statewide support and resources" for remote education.
As for the hybrid model, the DESE memo directs school districts to come up with a plan for students to alternate between in-person and remote instruction. But it leaves it up to individual districts to figure out how to potentially divide students' time. "For instance, students could switch between in-person and remote learning on alternating weeks or days of the week," the memo reads.
The third mandated "comprehensive fall reopening plan" required by the state will show how districts will implement in-person instruction in the era of social distancing.
While the DESE memo recognizes that children under 20 are less susceptible to COVID-19 infection, it notes on Page 19 that "this study also found infection in children to be more like to be asymptomatic, which underscores the importance of health behaviors for everyone."
The report therefore promotes "rigorous hygiene," including the use of masks, which will be required for everyone in schools older than a first-grader. And kindergarten and first-grade students will be "encouraged" to wear a mask.
"Mask breaks should occur throughout the day," the memo reads on Page 10. "Breaks should occur when students can be six feet apart and ideally outside or at least with windows open."
The report does not set a maximum number of students per classroom but tells districts to plan to maintain physical distancing in the classroom. The state says that 6 feet of "social distance" is "encouraged" but gives schools more leeway in this area than is allowed for, say, restaurants in the commonwealth.
"We encourage districts and schools to aim for six feet between individuals where feasible," the memo reads on Page 10. "At the same time, a minimum physical distance of three feet has been established when combined with other measures outlined in this list of safety requirements."
The commonwealth is not recommending that schools screen students on a daily basis but instead provide information to families and caregivers who are expected to check their children for COVID-19 symptoms daily and keep them home if they exhibit symptoms.
"[School] staff (as well as bus drivers) should observe students throughout the day and refer students who may be symptomatic to the school healthcare point of contact," the memo reads on Page 12.
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