Massachusetts commissioner sticks to 3-foot social distancing requirements as he plans to bring all students back to classrooms

Massachusetts education officials say they want to see all elementary students back to class in April and older students returning before the end of the school year. If students return to class in the spring, they will need to space at least 3 feet apart, not 6 feet apart, according to state guidelines.

Pushing for schools to return all their students to class, Commissioner Jeff Riley said Massachusetts public schools will face a “3-6 foot” social distancing requirement.

“I just want to remind people that in Europe and Asia and indeed in many states in this country, people are 3 feet or less,” Riley said. “We are sticking to our advice, which is 3 feet.”

If schools cannot accommodate their students in their classrooms without violating social distancing requirements, Riley said, “We will be working with individual districts that are facing a 3-foot challenge.”

The social distancing requirement is lower than Centers for Disaster Control and Preventionthe definition of social distancing, which calls for a minimum of 6 feet “where feasible”. The state’s own social distancing requirements for the public call for a spacing of at least 6 feet.

The social distancing requirement is just one part of Riley’s plan to get all K-12 students back into the classroom as the coronavirus continues to infect residents of Massachusetts. Citing concerns about student performance and mental health, Riley said he hopes to get all elementary students back to class by April and older students back before the end of the school year.

Parents would have the option of removing their children from in-person learning for the remainder of the school year, Riley said.

Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy said the plan to reopen the school “shows a ruthless disregard for the health and safety of school employees, students and families and disregards the rights and interests of local communities”.

“Governor Charlie Baker and Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley should get back to the drawing board,” Najimy said. “This time they actually have to talk to educators, educators unions, parents, school committee members and other community leaders most affected by their surprise and unwanted announcement.

Riley’s 3-foot minimum aligns more closely with the threshold used by the World Health Organization. When he explained the 3-foot minimum, he said that schools in parts of Asia and Europe have followed this guideline well.

Some Indiana schools have also adopted a 3-foot minimum. Earlier this month, Indiana health officials said students and teachers exposed to COVID-19 in a classroom will no longer have to quarantine if everyone was masked and spaced at least 3 feet apart.

the American Academy of Pediatrics states that a physical distance of 6 feet is ideal, but not always achievable in schools without smaller classrooms. “Schools should weigh the benefits of strictly adhering to a 6-foot spacing rule between students with the potential downside if distance learning is the only alternative,” says the academy.

Massachusetts has seen fewer new cases of COVID-19 since the holidays, but the state is still reporting at least 1,000 new cases per day. State health officials reported another 1,150 new COVID-19 cases and 26 deaths from complications from the coronavirus. As of Monday, the state’s death toll is 15,534.

Teachers have called for getting vaccinated earlier because those who teach in person could be exposed to COVID-19. When asked why teachers haven’t made progress, Riley said teachers are in the next category to be vaccinated.

Gov. Charlie Baker said teachers were not allowed to get vaccinated earlier because the state’s priority was “saving life”, from residents of long-term care facilities to doctors treating patients COVID-19 to residents aged 75 and over.

As of February 19, the state saw 157 districts and schools signed up to participate in COVID-19 testing pooled through the state, which represents more than half of the state’s public schools. Riley called the program an extra layer of mitigation strategy, like wearing a mask.

Riley told members of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on Tuesday that DESE is working with schools and districts to address student isolation caused by the pandemic.

MassLive reporter Melissa Hanson contributed to this article.

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Juana Renfrow

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