BOSTON (CBS) – The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) released its initial coronavirus guidelines for how schools could reopen this fall. Schools will be asked to be prepared for three potential scenarios, and parents will be asked to provide masks for children.
The guidelines, laid out in a document released on Thursday, leave the door open for three possible approaches – a full-scale return to school, remote learning, or a combination of the two.
Additional guidance will be released in July. A decision on fall sports is expected to be released in the July guidelines.
Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito held a press briefing Thursday to discuss the guidelines. They were joined by Sec. of Education James Peyser and DESE Commissioner Jeff Riley at the press conference.
Baker said the state “considered not only the risks associated with COVID-19 for in-person schooling, but also the risks associated with continuing to keep students out of the classroom.”
WATCH: Gov. Baker On New Guidelines
“Continued isolation poses very real risks to our kids’ mental and physical health, and to their educational development,” Baker said. “This plan will allow schools to responsibly do what is best for students, which is to bring them back to school to learn and grow.”
Under the initial plan, masks will have to be worn by all adults, and students in second grade and up. Mask breaks will be incorporated during the day when students can social distance, preferably outside or with the windows open.
Desks must face forward and be no less than three feet part. Ideally, desks will be six feet apart.
Students will likely stay in their classrooms for breakfast and lunch.
“I want to see my friends,” said third grader Audrey Mancuso. Her mother, Ally Mancuso, is part of a group called “Bring Kids Back”, which has been pushing for students to go back to school in the fall. “We were thrilled to see that’s at least the first step, trying to get kids back full time,” she said.
Commissioner Jeff Riley on Fall School Guidelines
There is no more uniform cap on the number of students in a classroom. That will be for each school to decide based on the size of each room, factoring in social distancing.
What is not required in the initial fall school reopening guidance is daily temperature checks upon entering the building. That is being left up to parents, who are also going to be responsible for providing their students with masks.
“What we’ve learned from our medical experts is, there is no one silver bullet that will help us mitigate risk,” said Riley. “Instead, it is a combination of strategies like hand washing or sanitizer, physical distancing, and masks, that when taken together will make the difference.”
When asked what would happen if parents don’t feel comfortable sending their child to school, Riley said “We anticipate that we’re going to be sympathetic to parents’ needs.”
Bus guidelines will be released at a later date, but the initial guidelines require students to wear masks while on the bus.
“Modeling studies suggest that school closures have had less impact on slowing the epidemic down than other distancing measures,” said Dr. Sandra Nelson, an infectious disease specialist from Mass General Hospital. “With this understanding, and with a reduced incidence of COVID in our community, we do believe it is safe for children to return to in person learning at school.”
Baker said it is difficult to develop guidance for schools with the academic year still several months away. The guidance assumes that health data in the state continues to stabilize.
“Schools will look different in every community,” Polito said, adding, “Putting our children back to school this fall is critical. It’s critical to their continued development both in and out of the classroom.”
On Thursday, Baker also announced that about $200 million from the state’s Coronavirus Relief Fund will be made available for costs related to reopening schools.
Schools will be eligible for up to $224 per student for costs such as training for staff, reconfiguring school spaces, leasing temporary facilities, and acquiring health and hygiene supplies.
“This plan will allow schools to responsibly do what is best for students — bring them back to school to learn,” said Baker in a statement. “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.”