BOSTON — Students returning to school this fall will be required to wear masks or face coverings. They'll sit in desks spaced at least 3 feet apart. Group activities will be limited, and kids will likely eat lunch in their classrooms.

The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has released new guidelines for a possible fall reopening of public and private schools, which have been closed since late-March as part of efforts to prevent spread of the coronavirus.

Education Commissioner Jeff Riley said schools should prepare for three possible scenarios: a full resumption of in-person instruction, remote learning or some hybrid of the two.

"Simply put, our goal is to get as many students back to in-person learning with the appropriate health and safety requirements in place," Riley told reporters Thursday. "This plan allows us to do that, for the good our all our kids."

Riley many of the new guidelines will be voluntary, and school districts will have flexibility to develop their own plans.

Schools won't be required to test for COVID-19 or conduct temperature checks on students before entering schools, leaving that responsibility to parents.

Parents, not school districts, will be required to provide face coverings or masks, which will be required for students in second grade and above and encouraged for kindergarten and first-grade students. Exceptions should be made for students with medical conditions.

Schools will need to stock up on personal protective gear, and nurses must have plans to isolate any students believed to be infected with COVID-19.

The reopening guidelines don't recommend specific class sizes, which are currently limited to 10 students for in-person summer programs.

Teachers unions have complained that class size limits would be unworkable for districts that also face deep cuts amid economic fallout from the pandemic.

To ensure social distancing, schools should consider repurposing libraries, cafeterias, auditoriums and other spaces to make additional classroom space, according to the state's guidance, which also suggested teachers may hold classes outside.

Desks in classrooms should be positioned facing one direction and spaced no less than 3 feet apart, and ideally at least 6 feet, per the guidance.

"What we’ve learned from our medical experts is, there is no one silver bullet that will help us mitigate risk," Riley said. "Instead it is a combination of strategies — like hand washing or sanitizer, physical distancing and masks — that when taken together will make the difference."

Mixed reaction

The recommendations were developed by an advisory group of educators, health experts and parents, and were based on state and federal public health guidelines.

Raquel Quezada, of Lawrence, is a disability advocate who served on the board. She said she is "very comfortable" sending her four children back to school under the new guidelines and talked about the toll on her family from schools being closed.

"My kids are really emotionally stressed by not being in school, and it has not been good for their health," she said. "My son with cerebral palsy cries every day because he needs his routine back, and I know that a lot of parents are in the same situation."

The Massachusetts chapter of the American Federation of Teachers said the new guidance "doesn’t adequately reckon with the realities, or the added costs, of reopening schools in the communities we represent."

“We know that the massive disruption brought on by the pandemic and resulting school closures is hurting our students — especially those who were already being harmed by the deep inequities in our education system," said AFT Massachusetts President Beth Kontos, a Salem educator. "But opening schools without the proper safety measures, and the funding required to implement them, will only contribute to a resurgence of the virus in the same high-poverty communities that have already been affected the most."

State education leaders said the guidance is based on the assumption that COVID-19 infections and deaths in the state will continue to decline. The rules and recommendations could change if there's a second wave of infections in the fall, they said.

Amesbury Superintendent Jared Fulgoni said the guidelines are less onerous, and costly, than he and other school administrators expected.

"We couldn't physically fit kids into a classroom with a 6-foot rule," he said. "A minimum of 3 feet gives us some flexibility to get more children safely back into school."

To help schools reopen, Gov. Charlie Baker said the state is directing $200 million in federal funds to cover expenses related to the COVID-19 outbreak. Schools will be able to apply for grants to reconfigure classrooms, train staff and stockpile disinfecting supplies and protective equipment, he said.

The state will also provide grants from a $25 million fund to help districts make technological upgrades to improve access to remote learning.

Baker said while the state must be cautious about bringing back students, there is also a risk of keeping them out of the classroom too long.

"Continued isolation poses very real risks to our kids’ mental and physical health, and to their educational development," he said at Thursday's briefing. "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."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Salem News and its sister newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

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