BOSTON (State House News Service) — Smaller, "isolated" classes, masks on students and staff, frequent hand washing, and six feet of spacing between desks are among the elements necessary to safely reopen schools in the fall, according to new state guidance.
Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeff Riley on Friday sent school superintendents guidance around safety supplies to help them prepare to reopen school buildings that have been closed to students since March, noting that some items may take longer than others to procure.
The department recommends ordering enough supplies for the first 12 weeks of school, based on current estimates, and says that state officials "are committed to providing support to districts in their acquisition of required supplies."
Required supply items include disposable masks, gloves and gowns; eye protection; face shields; hand sanitizer, and smaller quantities of N-95 ventilating masks, only to be used when staff is in contact with a suspected positive COVID-19 case or "performing aerosol-generating procedures." Supplies like gloves, gowns and face protection are intended for staff, like nurses and some special education teachers, who may have "high-intensity" contact with students, or the custodians who handle waste.
In addition to laying out the supplies to equip schools for educating during a pandemic, Riley's message also outlines a series of other health and safety measures he describes as necessary for a fall reopening, based on current state and federal recommendations.
The guidance calls for maintaining six feet of separation at "all time," including in how desks are arranged.
"Successfully implementing 6 feet of social distancing will require significantly smaller class sizes and reduced staff-to-student ratios," the memo said. "Furthermore, where feasible, programs should isolate individual groups of students with one consistently assigned teacher, and groups should not mix with other students or staff. At this time, group sizes are restricted to a maximum of 10 students, with a maximum of 12 individuals, including students and staff, in each room."
Students and staff must stay home when they feel sick or have any COVID-19 symptoms, so schools will need "enhanced protocols" for managing absences, the guidance said.
Students and staff will both need to cover their faces, with parents providing the masks for their students and "backup disposable masks" available at the school for kids who need them. Anyone who cannot safely wear a mask will not need to, but social distancing will be required in those cases.
A room will need to be set aside for students who may become ill during the school day, according to the guidance, and schools will need to develop new protocols on cleaning and disinfecting.
There will be frequent hand-washing, including upon arrival at the school, but temperature checks for students as they arrive are not recommended "due to the significant number of both false positive and false negative results." Additional information about symptom screening "will be provided in the coming weeks," the document said.
Riley has said he plans to distribute a full draft guidance around fall reopenings sometime in mid-June, and the department last week issued guidance on summer school and summer special education programs.
Riley recently recorded an episode of the Pioneer Institute's podcast "The Learning Curve," in which he discussed how he views reopening.
"When we think about it, we think about it on a continuum where on the left-hand side, in red perhaps, is this idea that we'd have to stay in remote learning," he said. "On the right-hand side, at the far end is green and it's this idea that we're just back to school as if it was pre-pandemic era and we were just having school."
A yellow piece in the middle would have hybrid learning options, Riley said.
"There may be a need to do some in-person instruction and some remote learning, and so what we're doing is creating models about all possibilities that we can give districts as we get ready to first start summer and then again think about how we can start in the fall," he said.
By Katie Lannan, State House News Service