State releases timeline for full-time return of elementary, middle school students to classrooms

BOSTON — All Massachusetts school districts must bring elementary and middle school students back for full-time, in-person learning next month, according to the state’s latest guidance on reopening schools.

Districts must offer full-time, in-person learning five days a week for kindergarten through fifth grade by April 5, Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Commissioner Jeff Riley announced Tuesday. The deadline to begin full, in-person learning for sixth through eighth grade is April 28.

The state has not yet set a date for a full return for high-schoolers, saying only the timeline will be announced in April, with at least two weeks of notice.

Parents may still choose to keep their children remote for the rest of the school year.

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted Friday to give Riley the authority to decide when districts must return to in-person learning.

The regulations released Tuesday are “legally binding,” DESE writes, adding that districts that do not comply and do not obtain a waiver from the state “will be required to make up any missed structured learning time.” That may include summer school or additional lessons next school year.

Dr. Steve Zrike, superintendent of Salem Public Schools, said his district is working hard to meet the state’s timetable.

“We’ve been working at six feet as being the distance we’re adhering to,” Zrike said. “In order to have everybody back across the district would require us to go below six feet.”

DESE cites research indicating three feet of distance between desks is just as safe as the six feet recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as long as masks are worn at all grade levels and other safeguards are taken.

Zrike will discuss the district’s plans with school committee members Monday. While he is not ruling out applying for a waiver, he has hope the state’s guidelines can be met.

“We think it’s doable. It’s challenging without question,” Zrike said. “We all want to return to some level of normalcy, and this is the first major step.”

One of the biggest challenges will be finding space for meals when students are unmasked.

The state is requiring schools to keep students separated by six feet when eating. Where physical space is tight during meals, DESE suggests adding additional meal periods, having some students eat in classrooms, repurposing meal areas to include gyms and art and music rooms, even setting up tents outside.

“We do have tents. We purchased them in the beginning of the year, and we’ll be setting them up in the next two weeks,” Zrike said. “We’re looking at all our larger spaces in schools – auditoriums, cafeterias, gymnasiums.”

Zrike said he will feel most comfortable with a full return when all educators have been fully vaccinated.

However, the details for when high school students will return to full-time in-person learning have not yet been announced. That timeline will be outlined in April, Commissioner Riley said. And while districts were told they should start making plans to return high school students to full-time, in-person learning, Riley wrote that districts will be given two weeks notice at a minimum before high school students do return.

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