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To reopen, states push face coverings, mix of in-school, remote learning

Roberto Jimenez Rivera, a school committee member in

Roberto Jimenez Rivera, a school committee member in Chelsea, Mass., is concerned about the state's guidelines for reopening schools, saying it is asking struggling, low-income districts to do more. Credit: Family photo

Massachusetts wants second-graders and up to wear face coverings, Florida is calling for full-time, in-person instruction in schools, and Virginia is recommending schools adopt a mix of in-person instruction and remote learning.

While New York State is still in the planning stages of the possible reopening of K-12 schools this fall, several states across the country already have issued guidelines and made recommendations on their reopenings. New York's Board of Regents is expected to release its guidelines to schools Monday, with a deadline of July 31 for schools to submit their plans. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has said he will make a decision on reopening by Aug. 7.

Nationally, teachers unions and parents already have begun critiquing the plans, often charging the proposals will require additional staffing and funding. Here's a look at the plans and reactions in three states.

Massachusetts 

School districts must submit three plans to the state — a full-scale return to school, a mix of in-person and remote learning, or remote learning only, according to the state's 27 pages of guidelines released June 25. 

"We're hoping to have most kids in school in the fall," said Jacqueline Reis, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The state guidelines are mostly voluntary, as state officials said they want school districts to craft policies that fit their area. The medical parts of the guidelines are not voluntary, including the use of masks, social distancing and hand washing, officials said.

Massachusetts students could be as close as 3 feet apart should they return to school. The state's recommendation for social distancing shortens the 6-foot distance favored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But state officials point to The American Academy of Pediatrics, which has said that "spacing as close as 3 feet may approach the benefits of 6 feet of space, particularly if students are wearing face coverings and are asymptomatic."

Beth Kontos, president of the American Federation of Teachers in Massachusetts, said teachers fear the district is just trying to get as many kids as possible back in the classroom. She believes the 3-foot limit would endanger both students and teachers.

"My first impression was that they just want to get us back, and it's convenient to say 3 feet instead of 6 feet," Kontos said. "Children cough and sneeze and touch everything."

Districts will not be required to provide each child a face mask. However, they are encouraged to have extras on hand. The state is not mandating daily temperature checks due to the likelihood of a false positive, Reis said. 

Schools also are being urged to keep students within the same group throughout the school day, so students likely will eat breakfast and lunch in their classrooms.

The teachers union favors a blend of in-person instruction and remote learning, Kontos said. 

"Kids need to see each other and the teacher," Kontos said. "Learning is social."

Roberto Jimenez Rivera, a Chelsea school committee member, said he worries that low-income districts, those already struggling for money and space, have been asked to do even more. 

"These guidelines don't work for a lot of our districts," he said. "Urban districts might not have the fields of green and the additional space to learn."

Dacia Morales, who lives in the South End neighborhood of Boston, said she wants her daughter in the school building when she starts sixth grade. Morales said she has seen her daughter get down about having to sit in the house all day. But she worries that "all that mixing" at school will bring the virus into her home.

"I want her in her learning environment, but I'm not willing to risk anything," she said.

Virginia

All Virginia public schools must submit both a health plan and an instructional plan to the state, but the plans do not require approval from state Department of Education. 

“This process leaves the final decisions about reopening squarely in the hands of local school boards," M. Norman Oliver, superintendent of Public Instruction, and James Lane, state health commissioner, said in a letter to superintendents.

Gov. Ralph Northam said in June that districts should focus on hybrid learning, essentially a mix of in-person instruction for part of the week and the rest remote. 

In Fairfax County, the state's largest school district, located outside of Washington, families and staff have been sent a survey to choose between all-virtual learning or the hybrid model. Their deadline to decide is Wednesday, officials said.

The teachers unions within Fairfax County Public Schools have refused to teach in-person until officials revise their strategy to make sure staff and students are safe, according to a joint statement by the three unions.

"We're urging distance learning," said Tiffany Finck-Haynes, an organizer of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers. "There are some holes in the plan. … How is the district providing [personal protective equipment]? What are the district's protocols if a staff member or student gets sick? What are the district's plans for contact tracing?"

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos on Wednesday criticized Fairfax's remote learning during the pandemic as a "disaster," and said the district's reopening plan would fail students. She called for schools to fully reopen.

In recent days, Virginia education officials amended the reopening plan, noting that they believe safe distancing can occur at 3 feet apart, a reduction from their initial boundary of 6 feet.

The unions prefer 6 feet of distance, Finck-Haynes said.

Florida

Despite record-breaking numbers of daily virus cases, Florida announced this past week that it wants schools to fully reopen for in-person classes next month.

Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran declared that upon reopening, "All school boards and charter school governing boards must open brick and mortar schools at least five days per week for all students."

The order, however, leaves the final decision to local officials based on health considerations.

Anthony Adelson, who has three children in the Broward County school system, said he supports an option that children can attend school full time. He and his wife support a local Facebook group called "Broward Parents for the Return to School," which says it has 4,000 members.

Adelson is an attorney and his wife is a pediatric dentist. He said they cannot pursue their careers while keeping their children home all day. When his 7-year-old son Axel was remote learning, Adelson found he had to be there teaching his son for hours daily.

"It's a big task for the parents of younger children," he said. "We have to sit with him and teach him, keep him on task." 

As for safety concerns, Adelson pointed to recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which says children are less likely to contract and spread the virus. The AAP wants schools to mitigate their response to COVID-19 without eliminating the option of full-time learning on campuses.

Broward County Superintendent Robert Runcie rejected the call for a full reopening of buildings.

"At this time, we do not see a realistic path to opening all schools with 100% full enrollment every day, as we were before the pandemic," Runcie said, according to a video provided by the district of Tuesday's school board workshop.

Broward is weighing three options: First is full-time, in-classroom learning, with students permitted to learn from home if their families so choose. The second choice is full-time learning online for everyone, and the third choice is a combination in which students would learn online two or three days a week and in-classroom on the other days.

"Our district will submit a plan that considers the options requested by our parents, provides the safest environment for our students and teachers, and that delivers the best education possible," Runcie said.

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