State’s initial guidelines to reopen Mass. schools this fall include face coverings, social distancing

BOSTON (WHDH) - Students and staff returning to school in Massachusetts this fall may have to follow a series of requirements to help curb the spread of the coronavirus, according to initial guidance released by the state on Thursday.

Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Jeffrey C. Riley released the Initial Fall School Reopening Guidance, which can be read here.

“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,” he said.

Gov. Charles Baker said during a press conference on Thursday that getting students back to school is important for their well-being.

“Continued isolation poses very real risks to our kids’ mental and physical health and to their educational development,” he said. “This plan will allow schools to responsibly due what is best for students, which is bring them back to school to learn and grow.”

In-person health and safety requirements

School districts are being told to plan for three possibilities of reopening — in-person learning with new safety requirements, a hybrid of in-person and remote learning, and remote learning.

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said that, “Schools will look different in every community as they adapt to this new way of educating to best fit their specific needs and circumstances.

Requirements that would be implemented for in-person learning range from increased social distancing to the use of face coverings.

Students in grades two and above are required to wear a mask that covers their nose and mouth, while those in kindergarten and grade one are recommended to wear face coverings, under the guidelines. Adults, including educators and staff, are also required to wear masks.

Exceptions to wearing masks can be made for those with medical conditions, disabilities, or other health and safety factors.

Mask breaks should occur throughout the day while students are 6 feet apart and ideally outside or in a room with windows open, according to Riley.

Families are told to provide their students with face coverings, but extra disposable face masks should be made available by the school for students who need them.

Everyone is required to wear a mask while riding the bus.

School districts are also encouraged to aim for 6 feet of distance between individuals where feasible, with a minimum distance of 3 feet being required when other safety requirements are being followed.

Desks will need to face the same direction and be spaced out no fewer than 3 feet apart.

Alternative spaces in schools, such as the cafeteria and library, should be repurposed to increase the amount of available space for social distancing, Riley said.

School districts are being told to divide their students into small groups that remain with each other throughout the day, with smaller cohort sizes preferred.

Breakfast and lunch may be held in classrooms as opposed to cafeterias or common spaces.

Screening procedures are not required at the point of entry to the schools but families and caregivers are asked to check their children for symptoms each morning.

Schools must also designate an isolated space available for students displaying COVID-19 symptoms that is separate from the nurse’s office or other space where routine medical care is provided, according to Riley. Symptomatic students will be moved to this space until they can be picked up by a family member.

Facilities and surfaces are expected to be frequently cleaned and sanitized, with hand sanitizer stations located at key locations in the building.

Funding to reopen schools

The Baker-Polito Administration announced the allocation of about $200 million from the Commonwealth’s federal Coronavirus Relief Fund for costs related to reopening public schools. Schools will be eligible to receive up to $225 per student for eligible costs incurred due to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as training for school staff, supplemental social and academic services, reconfiguration of school spaces, leasing of temporary facilities, and acquisition of health and hygiene supplies.

Municipalities, school districts, and charter schools may apply for these funds in the next few weeks.

Other potential funding sources to support schools reopening include $502 million from the Coronavirus Relief Fund that had previously been allocated by Gov. Charlie Baker to cities and towns, as well as $194 million in federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund grants.

The administration is also committing $25 million in federal funds for a matching grant program to help school districts and charter schools close technology gaps that have inhibited remote learning for students and families who lack access to computers or internet connections.

“This plan will allow schools to responsibly do what is best for students — bring them back to school to learn,” Baker said. “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.”

School districts are required to submit their comprehensive fall reopening plans for all three models (in-person learning, hybrid, and remote learning) to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in August.

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