Masks, six-foot distancing among fall guidelines for schools

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North Attleborough High School

By Max Bowen-max.bowen@northstarreporter.com

So long as the current positive health figures in Massachusetts hold, in-person school is a likelihood this fall.

According to information released by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education [DESE], schools will need to come up with three types of learning plans—in-person, hybrid and remote, to be sent to the state by August. The fall memo issued on June 25 is one of several updates about fall reopening, with more information to come in July.

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 DESE Commissioner Jeffrey Riley in a letter to school districts throughout Massachusetts.

In-person schooling limitations

The fall guidelines call a physical distance of six feet when feasible, with three feet being the minimum distance allowed. Desks should be spaced six feet apart—but no fewer than three feet apart—and face the same direction.

Students and staff are required to exercise hand washing or sanitizing upon arrival to school, before eating, before putting on and taking off masks, and before dismissal.

The guidelines ask that elementary schools keep students in the same group throughout the day. Middle and high schools are encouraged to minimize mixing student groups when possible. Screening procedures are not required at entrances. School staff—as well as bus drivers—should observe students throughout the day and refer students who may be symptomatic.

Temperature checks are not recommended as screening for all students due to the high likelihood of potential false positive and false negative results,” the guidelines state.

Face masks are required under the new guidelines, which state the following:

  • Students in grade two and above are required to wear a mask/face covering that covers their nose and mouth. Students in kindergarten and grade one should be encouraged to wear a mask/face covering.
  • Face shields may be an option for those students with medical, behavioral, or other challenges who are unable to wear masks/face coverings. Transparent masks may be the best option for both teachers and students in classes for deaf and hard of hearing students.
  • Adults, including educators and staff, are required to wear masks or face coverings.
  • Exceptions to these requirements must be made for those for whom it is not possible due to medical conditions, disability impact, or other health or safety factors.
  • Mask breaks should occur throughout the day. Breaks should occur when students can be six feet apart and ideally outside or at least with the windows open.
  • Masks/face coverings should be provided by the student or their family, but extra disposable face masks should be made available by the school for students who need them. Reusable masks/face coverings provided by families should be washed by families daily.
  • Masks/face coverings are required to be worn by everyone on the bus.

Hybrid learning models

When planning for a hybrid learning model, DESE recommend that districts and schools use an A/B group model that isolates two distinct groups of students who attend school in-person on either different weeks, different days of the week, or half days each day.

For instance, one group would attend school in-person from Monday – Friday of Week 1, while another learns at home remotely. In Week 2, the second group would attend in-person school and the first would engage in remote learning at home.

High-needs students should be prioritized for full-time in-person learning when feasible. Students who do not have internet and/or computer access at home should come into the school and/or to a local partner or community organization, with appropriate supervision, to complete their remote learning school days.

Support from the medical community

The guidelines include evidence from several health professionals and studies which encourage in-person learning this fall. Sources include the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance and Clinical Infectious Diseases, as well as an array of medical journals.

According to the DESE guidelines, schools do not appear to have played a major role in COVID-19 transmission. In a review of COVID clusters, only 4 percent (8 of 210) involved school transmission. In a case study from New South Wales Australia, after 18 cases were found in schools (12 in high schools and 6 in primary schools), only 0.3 percent of student contacts were infected (1 in 695 individuals in 10 high schools and 1 in 168 individuals in primary schools).

In general, rates of COVID-19 infection are lower for children than for adults. Based on an analysis of data from six countries, children under 20 are half as susceptible to COVID-19 infection than adults. Although children under the age of 18 make up 22 percent of the U.S. population, they account for less than 2 percent of all cases of COVID-19.

Moreover, in light of recent events and a national movement to fight for racial justice, it is even more critical that our students are able to quickly return to robust learning opportunities and a supportive school environment, through which we can engage in meaningful discussions on anti-racism, provide mental health supports, and help to prepare our young people to bring about the changes our world desperately needs,” the guidelines read.