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BOSTON – The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released guidelines for the 2020-21 school year today, June 25.

The guidelines come as Massachusetts schools ended the 2019-20 school year physically closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Most schools closed in mid-March and had to go to remote and online learning.

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“After weeks of discussion with many stakeholders, including our members of our Return-to-School Working Group, infectious disease physicians, pediatricians, and other public health experts; a thorough review of the medical literature; and evaluating what works best for our students, we want to start the school year with as many of our students as possible returning to in-person settings—safely. If the current positive public health metrics hold, we believe that when we follow critical health requirements, we can safely return to in-person school this fall with plans in place to protect all members of our educational community,” wrote Massachusetts education Commissioner James Riley.

Part of our responsibility as educators, administrators, and parents is to do all that we can to help our children in this difficult time. As we all know, there is no substitute for the attention and engagement that is only possible with in-person learning. We can mitigate the risks associated with COVID-19 for in-person school programs and prevent the significant consequences of
keeping students out of school and isolated. It will take all of us working together to make this successful,” wrote Riley in a memo to Superintendents.

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“DESE is providing initial guidance for school reopening this fall that
prioritizes getting our students back to school in person—safely, following a comprehensive set of health and safety requirements. At the same time, DESE is requiring each district and school to also plan for remote learning and a hybrid school model, a combination of in-person and remote learning, should local conditions change this fall or winter,” said Riley.

“The fall reopening guidance comes from a place of deep care and concern, with a focus on translating the public health data and evidence into practical application for school settings. We also acknowledge that it will likely elicit many new questions. We intend to address the most common questions in a running series of FAQs, along with additional specific topical guidance throughout the summer,” wrote Riley.

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“Our goal for the fall is to safely bring back as many students as possible to in-person school settings, to maximize learning and address our students’ holistic needs. With the information provided in this memo, districts and schools should begin planning for a fall return that includes multiple possibilities, with a focus first and foremost on getting our students back into school buildings,” wrote Riley in the guidelines issued today, June 25.

Commonwealth Offering Some Financial Support for Re-Opening

While schools and districts, through the city or town in which they are located, have already received federal CARES Act funds to support COVID-19
related purchases such as health and safety supplies/PPE, technology, and facilities upgrades, the Commonwealth is making additional funding sources available directly to schools and districts to support reopening.

To date, the following federal grants have been available to cities and towns for educational expenses related to COVID-19:
• $193.8 million from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund to districts, largely based on the Title I formula.
• A portion of the $502 million from the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CvRF) already allocated to cities and towns, of which a meaningful amount of submitted costs are related to education.
• Up to $15 million in competitive federal funds for which the Executive Office of Education (EOE) and DESE have applied.

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In addition to the above funds, the Commonwealth is making available:
• An additional $202 million from the CvRF for a new grant round to support school reopening. Of the $202 million, $182 million will be formula grants ($225 per pupil) and $20 million will be available at the Commissioner’s discretion for distribution to districts with unmet needs. In accordance with federal rules, these funds must be spent by December 30, 2020 for COVID-19 related expenses.
• $25 million available for remote learning technology grants through which the Commonwealth will provide a 100% state match to districts for their remote learning needs.

While school and district budgets remain uncertain, these additional resources will support schools and districts to provide a healthy and safe environment for in-person learning in the fall, wrote DESE in the guidelines.

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Below is list of additional topics on which DESE intends to issue guidance:

• Fall reopening checklist, including operations, teaching and learning, student supports, training, and communications needs.

• Process for handling a COVID-19 positive case in the school community, including when a school or classroom would need to shut down.

• Remote learning resources. We are actively exploring how best to support districts and schools with improving remote learning.

• Facilities and operations, including entry and exit procedures, cleaning and ventilation, procurement, food distribution, and signage.

• Transportation, including bus scheduling options, addressing bus capacity, and alternative modes of transportation, and operational considerations.

• Guidance for special programs and student supports, including special education, English learner education, and other programs and supports.

• Athletics, extracurriculars, and electives.

• Key policies, including academic calendar considerations.

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“This plan will allow schools to responsibly do what is best for students — bring them back to school to learn,” said Governor Charlie Baker. “COVID-19 has presented numerous challenges for our schools, educators and students, but through collaboration with school officials and the medical community, we have developed both a comprehensive plan endorsed by the Massachusetts Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and a financial package to support schools throughout the Commonwealth.”
“Our educators and staff are essential to preparing for the safe and successful fall reopening of schools throughout the Commonwealth,” said Lt. Governor Karyn Polito. “As we prepare to head back to school, we continue to work collaboratively to develop guidance that will support the ability to meet the challenges presented by this public health emergency.”
“There is clear consensus from both education and medical groups that while we must respect the risks of COVID-19 transmission associated with in-person schooling, we must also acknowledge the challenges and consequences of keeping students out of school, which affects their physical health, social and emotional well-being and educational progress,” said Education Secretary James Peyser. 
At this time, the public health evidence suggests schools have not played a significant role in COVID-19 transmission and that children, particularly younger children, are less likely than adults to be infected with COVID-19. Furthermore, if they become infected, it appears children may be less likely to transmit COVID-19 to others.
“The message from the medical community remains strong and consistent: We need to get our children back to school, as soon as it is safe to do so,” said Sandra Nelson, MD, an infectious diseases physician at Massachusetts General Hospital. “We believe that returning to the classroom — with appropriate precautions in place — can be done safely if we all remain vigilant. Our children deserve nothing less.”
The Massachusetts Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics endorsed the guidance.

“The Massachusetts Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education share the goal of bringing most students in the Commonwealth back to in-person learning this fall while minimizing the risk to them, the school staff, and their families,” said Dr. Lloyd Fisher, incoming president of the MCAAP.  “We are quite pleased with the recommendations in these guidelines and impressed with how thorough the Department was in researching the current data and their understanding of the spread of illness, impact of the disease on children, likelihood of children infecting others, and the significant negative consequences that prolonged school closures have on the educational, emotional and social well-being of children.”  

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To reopen schools in the fall, school officials must develop the following three models of learning:

  • In-person learning with new health and safety requirements: Students return to school buildings, but schedules, classrooms and protocols are modified to meet health and safety requirements.
  • Hybrid learning: Students learn both in-person and remotely.
  • Remote learning: Learning takes place entirely remotely. 

“While the Department is working toward the full in-person return to school of all students, school districts must be prepared to work on a continuum of three broad options for reopening,” said Riley. “We feel this gives school districts the readiness they need to educate students in person, and the flexibility to adapt if the health situation changes.”
“My first concern is student and community safety, and all of us on the Return-to-School Working Group focused on how to balance this priority with learning,” said Takeru Nagayoshi, an English teacher at New Bedford High School and the 2020 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year. “This initial back-to-school guidance is the product of many stakeholders’ combined efforts. It recognizes the importance of in-person learning while establishing guardrails to prevent the virus from spreading.”
Public school officials will need to indicate to DESE if it is feasible for their district to return students to school for in-person learning following the health and safety requirements. In August, districts will be required to submit comprehensive fall reopening plans that include all three models. Additionally, all school districts will also need a focused plan for effectively serving special student populations in each of these learning models.

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In-Person Learning
The guidance prioritizes getting students back to in-person learning — safely, following a comprehensive set of health and safety requirements. The Department DESE is asking school officials to change classroom configurations to space students farther apart from each other, set up additional classrooms in libraries, auditoriums, and cafeterias, and make scheduling changes.

  • Elementary schools should aim to keep students in the same group throughout the day, and middle and high schools are encouraged to minimize mixing student groups to the extent feasible. 
  • All students in second grade or older are required to wear a mask or face covering, with time built in for mask breaks throughout the day.
    • Kindergarten and first grade students should be encouraged to wear a mask or face shield.
    • Face shields may be an option for students with medical, behavioral or other challenges who are unable to wear masks.
  • All adults, including educators and staff, are required to wear masks or face coverings.
  • Exceptions to mask or face covering requirements must be made for people  for whom wearing a mask or face covering is impossible due to medical conditions, disability impact or other health or safety factors.

Physical Distancing

As reviewed and advised by the Massachusetts COVID-19 Command Center Medical Advisory Board, schools are encouraged to aim for a physical distance of 6 feet when feasible, and 3 feet is the minimum distance allowed as informed by evidence.[i]

There is no maximum number for group size, so long as schools adhere to the physical distancing requirements above.

Health Screening
Families will be the primary health screeners of students, looking for signs or symptoms of COVID-19. Screening procedures are not required for students to enter school. Temperature checks are not recommended for students due to the high likelihood of potential false positive and false negative results.
Families will receive information to support them in conducting symptom checks, and they should not send students to school if they exhibit COVID-19 symptoms. The Department will provide a symptoms checklist and other guides to help families and students.

  • A student who shows COVID-19 symptoms during the school day should be moved to a specific room designated for medical isolation until they can be picked up by a family member. This room must be separate from the nurse’s office or other space where routine medical care is provided.

Schools should have an inventory of standard health care supplies such as masks and gloves. The Department has made $193.8 million in federal funds available to help districts address needs associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, such as technology and safety supplies. That money, available through CARES Act Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds, is allocated based on district poverty levels. In addition, DESE is providing a bulk state ordering opportunity through which districts can submit their orders and payment to make the process as easy as possible.

Hybrid Learning Plans
In planning for the hybrid learning models, DESE recommends that school officials consider using an A/B cohort model that isolates two distinct groups of students who attend school in-person on different weeks, days or half days each day.
For instance, Group A would attend school in person from Monday through Friday of Week 1, while Group B learns at home remotely. In Week 2, Group B would attend school in person and Group A would engage in remote learning at home. The week on/week off model may be easier on families, giving them a chance to prepare for childcare for a full week at a time.
Remote Learning
Remote learning will continue to be a feature for many students this fall. The Department’s guidance states it is critical that districts have remote learning plans in place in the event modified in-person learning is not possible or in case remote learning is needed for individual students who cannot yet return to school in-person.  
Additional guidance and final reopening guidance will be released in coming weeks. The guidance will address subjects including transportation, facilities and operations, athletics and extra-curricular activities, electives, student and teacher supports and other key policies.

The 27-page document is here


This is a developing report & SOURCE will be updating.

By editor

Susan Petroni is the former editor for SOURCE. She is the founder of the former news site, which as of May 1, 2023, is now a self-publishing community bulletin board. The website no longer has a journalist but a webmaster.