Schools see reopening guidance as good framework

  • Bridge Street School parents wait outside the Northampton elementary for the dismissal of students shortly after noon on Friday, March 13, at the end of a previously scheduled half day. Public schools across Massachusetts were closed for the rest of the school year because of the coronavirus pandemic. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

SOUTH HADLEY — Following the release of state guidance for K-12 schools to reopen in the fall, local school districts are developing plans to fit their community’s needs within a state-produced framework that aims for a return to in-person classes.

On Thursday, Jeffrey C. Riley, commissioner of the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), released guidance for K-12 schools to reopen in the fall, with “a focus first and foremost on getting our students back into school buildings.”

The guidance also requires schools to create plans for remote learning or a hybrid model fusing remote and in-person learning in the event that COVID-19 cases become more prevalent in the fall or winter.

Under Riley’s plan, students in second grade and higher must wear face coverings or masks that cover their nose and mouth; schools must establish times throughout the day for “mask breaks” in areas that are well-ventilated and allow distancing; desks must be placed at least 3 feet apart, and 6 feet apart when possible; and all must engage in regular hand washing and sanitizing, among other protective measures.

South Hadley

In South Hadley, the School Committee had already spent weeks planning for in-person schooling with social distancing measures, strictly remote learning, and scenarios that fell somewhere in between. DESE’s announcement came as a relief that the School Committee had been focusing its energy in the right direction, said Chairman Kyle Belanger.

While the guidelines will inform South Hadley’s approach to the next school year, Belanger said students and families should know that the district will establish its own plans to fit the the community’s unique needs within the state’s framework. The School Committee will begin to shape its plans within the guidelines at its next virtual meeting on July 6 at 6 p.m.

Students and families should also expect that the state may revise guidance in the coming weeks and months, Belanger said, adding that he believes DESE’s focus on returning students to in-person classes is an aspirational goal.

“I think that in times of crisis, it makes everybody feel better if we can imagine what things will be like under the best circumstances,” Belanger said, “and I think that setting an aspirational tone from the state is what the state felt like it needed to do. I think it’s important to realize that what we got yesterday was the initial set of frameworks and guidelines.”

Although South Hadley will likely have the space needed to keep desks more than the minimum 3 feet apart, Belanger said he has concerns that the guidelines place school districts with less funding and resources into a more perilous public health situation.

“I think that it disproportionately puts districts that are predominantly lower-income and predominantly Black and brown into a much more difficult and less safe situation from a public health perspective,” Belanger said.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association also expressed concerns about equity issues in the guidelines in a statement by association president Merrie Najimy.

“Significant funding will be required for personal protective equipment, adequate staffing to enable physical distancing, and additional supports to address students’ social, emotional and academic needs,” Najimy wrote of the guidelines.

Najimy wrote that this would be “particularly crucial for low-income students and students of color,” and that school districts should immediately reverse layoffs implemented to address budget concerns.


In Northampton, where school officials had already presented 10 different potential ways to configure schooling in the fall, Superintendent John Provost said he believed the DESE guidelines were helpful overall.

“We’ve been waiting for the rules for the road for school reopening for quite some time,” Provost said. “Knowing where the guardrails are in terms of the health and safety requirements for school reopening gives us a chance to move forward with the planning process.”

The School Committee had asked Provost to develop further details for three of the 10 scenarios, and the superintendent said he’s been preparing student enrollment patterns to present at the committee’s meeting on Monday.

While schools must maintain at least a 3-foot physical separation between students under the DESE guidelines, Provost said the 10 scenarios were based on a 6-foot minimum, and that he’s now coming up with potential enrollment patterns based on other distances. This could mean less of a reliance on remote learning, as caregivers have expressed concerns to Provost regarding their child’s educational and social needs while taking online school.

“Having the capacity to build models that allow more students to return to school, I think, addresses that need,” Provost said.


As DESE’s guidance arrived, Stephen Zrike was finishing his last days as superintendent/receiver of Holyoke Public Schools before becoming the new superintendent in Salem.

Given the fact that he has “a foot in two districts,” Zrike said he appreciates that DESE’s guidelines provide a good balance between health and safety mandates and flexibility for different districts. Salem and Holyoke, for example, have different space considerations, community needs, school sizes and teaching forces, Zrike said.

“We may have a ‘Dr.’ next to our names, but we know nothing about the health and wellness of people,” Zrike said with a laugh. For that reason, clear and science-based safety guidelines are essential, he said. “But it’s important for districts to have that flexibility beyond that.”

Zrike said he has never seen an issue that has so divided educators across the state.

As for what more is needed, Zrike said he is urgently awaiting the state’s guidelines on transportation — how many people are allowed on a bus, for example — and remote learning.

“That guidance is needed,” Zrike said. “Remote learning is still going to be a part of our world, whether we want it or not.”


Anne McKenzie, superintendent for Hadley Public Schools, said Friday that administrators have already begun preparing for the new school year. This includes examining how classes would be conducted through entirely remote learning or with students and teachers back in the classrooms full time, or some combination of the two models.

For instance, the director of facilities is looking at how many desks can fit into a classroom and what the maximum occupancy would be with safe physical distancing, and how to minimize student movement throughout the day. McKenzie said one aspect of this is how meals are served.

The previous day, McKenzie told the School Committee that she will be reviewing the initial guidelines over the weekend and then convene the core group of educators and leaders already meeting twice a week this spring while school buildings were closed.

McKenzie said she is considering who needs to be involved in the planning and how to appropriately engage the public. Final decisions on reopening will only be made after public input, open discussions and deliberation by elected officials.

“No plan goes forward without School Committee approval,” McKenzie said.

Richard Alcorn, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School in Hadley, said in an email that the initial guidelines are appreciated and helpful.

“We look forward to receiving additional guidance from DESE this summer on topics like the busing of students,” Alcorn said.


Easthampton Public Schools Superintendent Allison LeClair wrote that her district is “reviewing the guidance carefully and will be spending time this summer developing our plans with an eye towards getting back into our schools this fall. Our priority is the safety and well-being of our staff and students.”

Gazette reporter Bera Dunau contributed to this report.
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