Schools reopening guidance: What’s in it?

State guidance outlines scores of new requirements for districts as they look to reopen schools and restart learning in September
A school bus pulls up to Mont Pleasant Middle School in this file photo.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
A school bus pulls up to Mont Pleasant Middle School in this file photo.

Categories: News

School is happening one way or another this year – at least 180 days of it. And while it’s not clear just what form that will take, districts have a lot of planning and little time to prepare for the fall.

At least they have the rules now: the state Education Department on Thursday afternoon published a much-awaited guidance document, specifying how districts should plan for the new academic year, set to begin early September.

The 145-page document outlines requirements and best practices for districts working out the classroom-level logistics of how to bring students back to school and how to keep them home if needed.

While the guidelines prefer in-person schooling and mandate all districts plan for in-person instruction – “plans must address resuming in-person instruction,” according to the guidance – they also acknowledges remote or hybrid models may be necessary throughout the year. The planning guidelines ensure districts create a game plan for a combination of in-person and remote schooling, and prepare to ramp up or scale down the different forms as health considerations change. They suggest districts emphasize particular groups of students for in-person instruction, including younger students and students with disabilities or language needs, and balance plans with equity concerns like student technology access and ability to meet strict daily time schedules. 

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While districts will have to comply with scores of new requirements under the guidelines, the state guidance also grants districts flexibility to detail plans down to the school level.

“Schools are given the ability to restructure their programs using flexible scheduling models – taking advantage of in-person, remote, or hybrid learning models – and to provide synchronous and/or asynchronous instruction,” according to the document.

Districts, which have been soliciting family and community input and starting to develop, must submit plans adhering to the new guidelines by July 31 and post plans on their websites.

Here’s a breakdown of key elements of what’s required and recommended for school districts this school year:

Health and Monitoring

Districts will be tasked with monitoring the health of its students and staff, working with families to daily check for Covid-19 symptoms and check students’ temperature, and creating plans to respond if someone in the school tests positive for the virus.


  • Students, staff and visitors to all schools must have their temperature checked every day
  • Parents and caregivers can check a student’s temperature prior to arriving at school, but districts must establish plans for checking the temperatures of students who are not checked prior to arrival
  • Any student or staff member with a fever of 100 degree or greater and/or symptoms of possible COVID-19 infection must be isolated and sent home immediately
  • Districts must provide parents and guardians and staff resources to learn how to monitor for COVID-19 symptoms
  • Schools should continuously educate students about proper hand and respiratory hygiene and post messages around schools reinforcing those messages
  • Districts are not supposed to conduct testing but need to coordinate with local health agencies to refer students and staff for testing if developing symptoms
  • Districts must immediately report to their local health department all new positive cases within their school community
  • Social distancing – people staying six feet apart – will dictate much of the logistics of the school days as it is required on buses, in classrooms and whenever possible
  • Face coverings are also required when possible, while granting students breaks and the opportunity to not wear masks in classrooms when spaced at a distance
  • Students with a disability that prevents them from wearing a mask cannot be required to

Supplies

School districts must ensure an adequate supply of personal protective equipment, including disposable facemasks, for all students and staff in school.

  • The guidance recommends districts maintain enough disposable masks to provide every student one per week, every teacher five per week and every school nurse 10 per week
  • Students and staff must wear face coverings when in hallways, restrooms, school buses or anytime they cannot maintain at least six feet of distance from others
  • Students and staff can use their own face coverings but schools must also have supply for those who do not bring their own mask
  • When spaced at an appropriate distance in classrooms, students do not need to wear masks
  • Districts also need to acquire disposable gloves, gowns, eye protection, face shields, respirators thermometers and other supplies to conduct regular health screenings

Transportation

  • Students must wear face coverings and sit at a distance on buses
  • Students from the same household should sit together on the bus
  • Schools must continue to meet at all transportation mandates, like those applying to homeless students, students in foster care, students with disabilities and students who attend non-public or charter schools within the district
  • All school buses must be cleaned and disinfected every day
  • Drivers must wear face masks
  • Students cannot be denied transportation for not having a mask and district must provide them with one
  • Schools should consider staggering arrival and departure times and reconfigure drop-off areas to facilitate social distancing efforts

Food

  • Schools must provide access to school meals for all eligible students whether they are learning in school or remotely
  • Schools must establish procedures for students to wash hands before and after meals
  • Schools need to clean and disinfect shared eating areas between each group of students
  • Students may eat in classrooms as part of social distancing strategies
  • Schools should suspend use of salad bars, self-service refrigerators and other shard self-service systems
  • Districts should update sanitation and hygiene procedures in kitchens, cafeterias, food warehouses and other locations

The School Day

The average school day is set to look unlike anything students, teachers or parents have ever seen.

  • Schools are encouraged to separate students into “cohorts” or groups that stay together throughout the day and school year as much as possible to limit interactions among students
  • Schools should look to lengthen class periods, stagger schedules and give students more time before classes to minimize students in hallways
  • Schools should limit or suspend access to lockers, cubbies and other congregate and shared spaces
  • Hallways may be converted to one direction and signs and tape should be used to promote social distancing
  • Spaces like cafeterias and libraries can be repurposed as classrooms
  • Districts can also look to acquire or access other facilities in the community to use for instruction
  • Districts should work with architects in making changes to facilities and may need SED approval for certain changes to facilities
  • Schools must develop a way to track daily attendance or student engagement for students in school and working remotely
  • Districts can apply for waivers for meeting mandate instruction hours due to pandemic, but they must teach students – in-person or remotely – for at least 180 days
  • Student instruction must include “regular and substantive interaction with an appropriately certified teacher regardless of delivery method”
  • Schools must prepare to assess where a students’ learning stands after school closures and make plans to remediate lost learning
  • Districts must survey student, family and teacher access to computer devices and internet access
  • Schools should offer training and support for students and familiesto ensure comfort and ease with new instructional programs and remote platforms
  • Physical education should be held outside when possible

Special Programs and Student Needs

  • School reopening plans must ensure access to necessary accommodations, modifications, supplementary aides and services and technology needs to meet the special needs of students with disabilities
  • Schools must document programs and services offered students with disabilities and communicate with parents in their preferred language and mode of communication
  • Special education plans should account for how to meet students needs in the event of school closures
  • Students with disabilities and other high-need students should be prioritized for in-person services
  • Schools that reopen for in-person or mixed instruction must complete within 30 days the process to identifying English Language Learner students among anyone who enrolled since schools closed in the spring
  • English language learners must be given instructional support at their most recently measured language proficiency
  • Schools must maintain regular communication with the parents and caregivers of English language learners to ensure they are engaged in their child’s education, providing communications in their preferred language 

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