School officials concerned about possible back-to-school guidelines

When Abington students return to school, they may be required to wear masks the entire day while sitting in classes of no more than 10, under possible guidelines being circulated by state education officials. 

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is slated to release its full set of reopening guidelines shortly. But the department provided school administrators with an early glimpse last week when they sent out guidelines to help school districts get a jump on ordering masks, hand sanitizer, and other COVID-19-related safety supplies.

Those guidelines are based on state and federal social distancing practices, such as requiring teachers, students, and staff to wear masks throughout the school day, encouraging frequent hand washing and hand sanitizing, and enhanced cleaning and sanitizing of classrooms and school buildings. But the language also suggests that group sizes could be restricted to 10 students, plus staff, at a time.

While cautioning that “the situation is fluid,” Abington Schools Superintendent Peter Schafer said he is concerned that these sorts of guidelines and restrictions will make reopening Abington’s classrooms in September a challenge. 

“How are 7 year olds going to wear masks all day?” he said. “Or high school students?”

Jacqueline Reis, a spokeswoman for the state education department, cautioned that the Commonwealth has not yet released its official guidance for reopening schools, and scenarios included in last week’s document were to help school districts plan while buying supplies for the coming year

“This purchasing information is based on our best information at this point, and information continues to change,” said Reis. “Our actual school guidance for the fall will come in a week or two.”

While Schafer hopes some of the guidance changes before schools open, he said that the department is actively planning to implement the guidelines.

“We won’t be going rogue,” he said. “We’re going to plan for the worst and hope for the best, and hope all this changes over the next three months.”

If classroom size remains capped at 10 students come the fall, Schafer said the school department is currently weighing a number of scenarios — such as having students attend for half days or alternating days, combined with some remote learning — to avoid needing to temporarily hire dozens of new teachers and set up dozens of new classrooms.

“All schools in Massachusetts are looking at what this might look like,” he said.   

School officials are also trying to figure out other aspects of daily school life, such as how school buses and cafeterias will work in an era of social and physical distancing. In addition, there’s no word yet on how fall sports may be impacted by new safety guidelines.

Abington School Committee members are echoing many of Schafer’s concerns. 

“I don’t like the ideas of kids going back to school with masks on. I just don’t know how feasible that is,” said School Committee Chairman Chris Coyle. 

However, he added, that sending kids to school with masks is a better alternative than keeping kids home and resuming remote learning in the fall. 

“I’d rather see them in school if that’s how it’s got to be,” he said. “I’m not going to be giving any advice to go against the guidelines.”

School committee member Jackie Abrams, who is a teacher, feels the state guidelines are being crafted by those lacking practical experience working in a classroom, and would create another financial burden on school districts. 

“Respectfully, I would like to ask them ‘Will you please come do this work beside me and show me how this is possibly what’s best for children? How can this ever work?’,” she said. 

“I want to beg them to please create guidelines that are realistic and take into account the whole child. Yes, physical health is critical but equally important is mental health and well being. I’m scared we once again aren’t putting ourselves in the shoes of children and asking ‘How would I like this? What would this feel like to me?

“Lastly, schools are already grossly lacking funding so I can’t even begin to wrap my head around the financial impacts these guidelines will have on budgets. We would need more staff, more space, more supplies, and teachers in urban districts are already buying their own paper and pencils.”

Wendy Happle, also a school committee member said, the schools need to be open come September, with provisions made for families who either don’t feel comfortable sending their child back, or has a child with a compromised immune system.

“These kids, they want to get back to their lives,” she said. “We just can’t live like this.”

Schafer is expected to give the school committee an update at its meeting on Wednesday.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is accepting comments from the public. More information is available here:

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