Despite the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, which closed the Bay State’s K-12 public schools last March, forcing them to cobble together remote learning plans on the fly, the goal, say state education officials, is to return students and teachers to the classroom this coming academic year.
“There is no substitute for in-person instruction when it comes to the quality of students’ academic learning,” says the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) in the opening pages of its document listing requirements school districts must follow to reopen their schools this fall. “In-person school plays an equally important role in our ability to support students’ social-emotional needs, including their physical health, and in mitigating the impacts of trauma.”
DESE, which oversees the Commonwealth’s K-12 public schools, issued a 28-page reopening guidance, listing safety and health stipulations each district must meet before opening their schools for in-person instruction.
School districts are required to submit reopening plans to DESE in August, the Department’s report says. The plans must detail how schools will operate with students and teachers inside the buildings, how they will operate should it become necessary to implement remote learning again, and, finally, show how they will teach in a hybrid fashion, with students instructed both at home and inside school.
When asked if DESE could reject those plans, Colleen Quinn, a spokeswoman for state Secretary of Education James Peyser, said: “DESE will not reject (reopening) plans but will work very closely with school districts to ensure what they are proposing complies with the medical requirements released in the guidance.”
“The medical community supports the return of our students to in-person learning, with appropriate health and safety guardrails in place,” DESE’s report says. “With adherence to a comprehensive set of critical health and safety requirements, we can bring our students, staff and families safely back to school.”
DESE says they spoke with infectious disease physicians, medical advisors and with members of the Covid-19 Command Center’s Medical Advisory Board, which includes two Massachusetts General Hospital doctors, Rochelle Walensky and Paul Biddinger.
July’s statistics from the state’s Department of Health show that of the more than 8,300 deaths from COVID-19 in Massachusetts this year, no one was younger than 20. The majority of deaths, well over 80 percent, were people 70 and older.
Of the more than 111,000 Covid-19 cases in the Bay State this year, the majority infected were people 50 years and older while there were only 6,100 cases among children and young adults up to the age of 19, according to the state’s Department of Health in July.
When school resumes, DESE says, everyone, starting with second graders, as well as teachers and staff, will be required to wear face masks. Time will also be allocated for “mask breaks,” when students will be allowed to remove them.
Students will need to be at least three feet away from one another both inside the classroom as well as in the hallways and, if possible, kept “in the same group throughout the day” to “minimize the number … who would potentially be exposed to COVID-19” if someone contracted the virus, DESE’s guidance report says.
“COVID-19 is primarily transferred via respiratory droplets that travel less than three feet,” said Dr. Cody Meissner, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center. “The Centers for Disease Control has built in an extra three feet to make it six feet for social distancing but it’s hard in school to maintain six feet of distance.”
Schools, says DESE, are required to provide “COVID-19 isolation space” – which needs to be separate from the nurses’ offices – in case students display virus symptoms.
Teachers, staff and students will be expected to wash their hands throughout the day, DESE says, and schools are required to place hand sanitizer dispensers at building entrances, cafeterias and in the classroom.
School superintendents and principals are also expected to create “alternative spaces in the school,” turning the cafeteria, library and auditorium into classrooms “to increase the amount of available space to accommodate” social distancing rules, DESE says.
While DESE has yet to issue requirements or suggestions for transporting children on school buses, they will be forthcoming, the guidance report says.
DESE’s guidance document also recommends that school superintendents find out how many parents will send their children back to school should they reopen.
“It’s a parent’s prerogative to look out for the safety of their child,” said Todd Gazda, superintendent of Ludlow Schools, noting that some students and parents are immunocompromised. “For any parent who says their child will not return to school in Ludlow, we’ll have a fully remote option.”
“Superintendents are strongly committed to bringing the kids back to school,” said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. “But the wildcard is how the teachers’ unions feel about this.”
“A lot of educators are uneasy about the guidelines that DESE put out,” said Scott McClennan, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA), the Bay State’s largest teachers’ union. “The guidance from DESE is leaving everyone confused.
“There’s no talk about any job action but people are concerned about this and how it manifests itself,” he added.
He also says MTA President Merrie Najimy is talking about crafting “a phased-in approach for reopening schools with face-to-face instruction being the goal.”
COVID-19 starts as an infection in the lungs, and in an adult, it seems to trigger the immune system to overreact and that appears to be what causes death, according to some published reports.
“The immune system of kids seems more adaptive than the immune system in an adult which is more set in its ways,” said Dr. John O’Reilly, a pediatrician at the Baystate Medical Center in Springfield.
“I think we’ll find that certain people are genetically predisposed to having an exaggerated inflammatory response, and it’s those people who get in trouble with COVID-19,” said Dr. Meissner.
DESE notes that children “are less likely than adults to be infected with COVID-19.”
“Why children are less likely to become sick from COVID-19 than adults is a fascinating question,” said Meissner. “Remember there are four conventional coronaviruses that cause the common cold. It could be that one of those conventional coronavirus infections confirms some degree of protection against the disease.”
In fact, he says, the risk of a child or an adolescent becoming infected with Covid-19 is higher at home than it is at school.
“In most of the cases at Tufts, (infected) children come from families where a family member, usually an adult, was diagnosed with COVID-19,” he said.
“If you go back and look at the number of cases in Massachusetts when Gov. Charlie Baker closed the schools, there was no change in the number of cases in the slope of infections,” said Meissner. “Closing the schools didn’t do anything to limit the spread of the virus.
“That’s why I feel children should get back to school. Kids need to socialize and participate in athletics,” he added.
He suggests, where possible, keeping classrooms ventilated by keeping windows open because it will reduce the likelihood of the virus’s spread.
Meissner also stresses that children and parents be vaccinated against the flu this fall.
“There is preliminary evidence that says the death rate of someone infected with influenza while simultaneously being infected with Covid-19 increases the possibility of death four or five times,” he said. “Only about 50 percent of the population is immunized. Hopefully, we’re going to get that number higher.”
Soon after the Bay State’s public schools closed, many started attempting to teach students remotely, either by sending homework assignments via email or setting up video classroom instruction via digital providers.
“Kids generally thought they were learning less in a remote environment than in a face-to-face setting,” said Peter Dillon, Berkshire Hills Regional School Superintendent, about his students. “In an interesting shift, parents thought kids could be assigned more homework but kids thought it was just right.”
The Unknowns: Athletics, extracurricular activities and music
While DESE’s document doesn’t provide requirements or suggestions about how school districts should handle gym class, athletics, music instruction, bands or extracurricular activities, Jacqueline Reis, DESE’s spokeswoman, says it will be out in the coming weeks.
“I have no problem with field hockey or football,” said Meissner, when asked about them being played this fall. “On an outside field, transmission is low.
“I’m a little more nervous about basketball because it’s inside,” he added, noting the aerosols players exhale are at greater risk of landing on another player.
Music is also worrisome, Meissner says, citing a case from Washington state earlier this year, when a member of a choir, who didn’t know they were infected with COVID-19, managed to infect nearly 90 percent of the choir members at rehearsal one night. Two of them died. The median age of the choir members that night was 69.
“More aerosols are expelled when one sings than when one talks,” he said, noting they’re also expelled greatly when someone plays a wind instrument, like the flute, trombone, clarinet or saxophone.