Anyone hoping for a return to normal classroom learning this fall will have to keep hoping.
Nothing will be close to normal if the guidelines put out by the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on Thursday are implemented as they stand.
According to the guidelines, each district must plan for the implementation of three models of teaching and figure out a way to pay the added costs those models are likely to incur.
The department said priority should be given to an “in-person” school model,” but two others, a hybrid of in-person and remote learning and a fully remote learning model, must be developed as well.
“Our goal for the fall is to safely bring back as many students as possible to in-person school settings, to maximize learning and address our students’ holistic needs,” state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley said. “Districts and schools should begin planning for a fall return that includes multiple possibilities, with a focus first and foremost on getting our students back into school buildings.”
But putting the plan into practice will cost school districts more money.
Riley said districts need to plan for a “level service-plus budget.”
Additional costs would come with modifying class sizes, staffing, transportation and facilities, he said.
Strict social distancing mandates that require students to be at least 3 feet apart in classrooms and ideally 6 feet are among the rules to be imposed and would require some classes to shrink or be split into two.
All staff and students from Grade 2 up must wear masks.
And students will be required to follow an intense hand-washing regimen.
“Students and staff are required to exercise hand hygiene (hand-washing or sanitizing) upon arrival to school, before eating, before putting on and taking off masks, and before dismissal,” according to the department.
Social distancing may require bigger classrooms or more classrooms and more teachers.
That means that gyms, libraries and cafeterias may be used as classrooms. Districts may even have to use community libraries and community centers.
All that would boost budgets and that’s a concern for superintendents statewide who don’t know what they will get from the state to fund their districts.
“Until we have budget it’s very hard to know exactly what we are going to do,” Attleboro Superintendent David Sawyer said Thursday.
This week, the city council approved a budget that includes $82 million for schools, a 4.8 percent increase.
But that budget is based on Gov. Charlie Baker’s preliminary state budget issued in January, before the coronavirus pandemic hit and before the state lost billions in tax revenue because of the ensuing economic shutdown.
If the state cuts education aid in the wake of lost revenue, it would create a funding problem, especially in poorer districts like Attleboro.
But Sawyer is not panicking yet.
The state has grant programs that the district could tap into for additional cash, he said.
Sawyer said some of Attleboro’s classrooms can accommodate the 3-foot social distancing rule, but others can’t, which will require alternative plans.
North Attleboro Superintendent Scott Holcomb believes that his schools have the room for social distancing.
“I’m cautiously optimistic about our classroom spaces being able to properly house all our students,” he said.
He’s concerned about cash flow though and the acquisition of personal protective equipment the district will need to implement all mandated measures.
He’s not as worried about state budget cuts.
Holcomb said the town would be able to handle as much as a 20 percent state cut.
“The town is in a strong financial position at the moment,” he said.
Paul Zinni, superintendent of the King Philip Regional District, said it’s still too early to tell what will happen when the time comes to start school.
“There is still much uncertainty surrounding the fall and we urge everyone to be patient as we navigate through this initial guidance and the additional guidance that will follow throughout the summer,” he said in press release.
“The district is awaiting further guidance to better understand the potential cost of reopening and what funding the district will receive once the state’s budget is finalized,” Zinni said.
The Massachusetts Teachers Association said the new state guidelines raise many questions about the three models and costs.
“Negotiating such models between school districts and local educator unions will require that the expertise of educators, students and families be centered in the decision-making. Most importantly, it cannot happen without adequate funding from the state,” MTA President Merrie Najimy said in a press release.