PEABODY — Desks will be spaced three feet apart and teachers, staff and students from the second grade up will be wearing masks in the Peabody schools this fall. 

New Peabody Superintendent Josh Vadala outlined the COVID-19 protocols for the School Committee Tuesday night, hours before he officially took over July 1.

“Obviously we will be reopening schools; it depends on what capacity,” said School Committee member Joseph Amico, who prompted the discussion on reopening plans as new guidance from state Commissioner of Education Jeffrey Riley was released last week.

Amico said students’ academic, social-emotional and behavioral needs are not being addressed while they are learning at home.

“Our ultimate goal is safely returning students to in-person instruction,” Vadala said, “and we also want to take into account the safety of our faculty, our families and making sure we are following the medical professionals’ guidance and the regulations.”

School districts will need to come up with plans for in-person learning with new safety requirements, a mix of in-person and remote learning, and remote learning for students who cannot return to school or if the pandemic forces schools to close again.

When students go back, adults will be required to wear masks and face coverings; so will students in the second grade and up, Vadala said. It will be recommended younger students wear them, but it will not be required.

“Some of these kids are not going to want to keep their mask on,” said School Committee member John Olimpio, noting the need for staff training to deal with younger students and those with special needs who may be uncomfortable with wearing masks. He wondered if there will be training for teachers to deal with issues around mask wearing, and whether this will become a disciplinary issue.

“I hate to see this develop into a situation where it’s the kids who are suffering,” Olimpio said.

Vadala said the state is working with the teachers’ unions to reduce the 180-day instruction requirement by three days so districts can provide professional development around reopening.

In other places around the world where schools have reopened, Vadala said, they’ve found that with training and breaks, students can be accustomed to wearing masks for short periods of time. Some won’t be able to, so additional safety measures should be put in place for staff.

Vadala said no one safety measure will mitigate the risk of spreading COVID-19, but four key things should help.

The first is physical distancing by keeping everyone six feet apart; recent studies have shown that desks can be placed three feet apart, Vadala said.

“There is evidence that shows us that by putting desks three feet apart, maintaining face coverings, hand washing and hand sanitizing, that would be our best option to be able to return to school safely,” Vadala said.

Vadala said studies from around the world show schools “do not appear to have played a major role in COVID-19 transmission.”

They also show that children under 20 appear to be far less susceptible to infection than adults or those at-risk. Studies also show that on rare occasions when children under 18 were infected, they were less likely to have significant symptoms, and that children may be less likely to infect others with COVID-19.

Vadala plans to form a return to school task force, a larger reopening working group to come up with reopening procedures and COVID teams in each school to handle things when the schools reopen.

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