Mass. coalition cites 16 areas to improve before schools reopen

The group of nurses, teachers and other support staff recommend no in-person learning until many issues are addressed or resolved
By: | August 31, 2020
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The newly formed Coalition to Reopen Schools Safely, led by the Massachusetts Nurses Association, on Monday released a forceful statement against schools reopening too soon during the COVID-19 pandemic, citing a number of concerns including lack of planning, funding, testing and personal protective equipment.

The group, also comprised of school nurses, teachers, parents, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, librarians and school support staff, recommended there be no in-person learning until a long list of issues is resolved. It also advised against having any staff on site at schools to do remote instruction.

“This process represents one of the most consequential decisions our communities and our state will make as our state and nation construe to grapple with a pandemic that is still surging across the nation, showing signs of a second wave in our state, with the threat of the flu season looming,” said Patty Comeau, RN, a member of the Coalition, the Massachusetts Nurses Association and a school nurse in Methuen, Mass., citing a Policy Lab study showing a likely spike in cases that will hit New England.

“A safe, scientifically guided, well planned, adequately funded and appropriately resourced process must be the priority for all involved, as the stakes couldn’t be higher and the outcome of our decisions truly have life-and-death consequences. We don’t believe our state is ready to pursue in-person learning safely.”

The guidance meshes with that from the Massachusetts Teachers Association and American Federation of Teachers, as well as expert analysis and reports from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Massachusetts Education Equity Partnership and the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health.

Though the Coalition is urging the state and schools to provide remote learning only, 30% of districts in Massachusetts still plan to start the academic year with either a hybrid or in-person model.

The 16 steps to a safe return

The Coalition highlighted 16 areas it said must be “addressed appropriately” before a safe return to in-person learning can happen. Those include:

  1. Proper ventilation and circulation of air
  2. Assessing community resources for alternative school settings
  3. Ensuring proper social distancing
  4. Standardization and availability of PPE for all staff and students
  5. Resources and infrastructure to support hand hygiene and mask wearing
  6. Safe cleaning practices
  7. Addressing the health and safety of students with special needs
  8. Access to rapid testing
  9. Clear guidelines for contact tracing
  10. Appropriate school nurse staffing
  11. Space to isolate and monitor suspected or positive cases
  12. Resources for safe transportation of students
  13. Safe re-entry into school protocols
  14. Comprehensive education and training of staff prior to reopening
  15. Disparities in access to in-person learning
  16. Preserving school staff pay and benefits

The coalition provided an additional set of details in each area, raising seemingly basic concerns that must be addressed quickly and areas that could be improved:

A lack of proper ventilation: “Many of our schools are decades old, with long-standing issues related to indoor air quality prior to the onset of the pandemic. Many do not have HVAC systems that circulate air as needed. Many do not have windows that open.”

Social distancing: “We are concerned to see the state, and some school districts, qualify [the 6 feet of social distancing] requirement with the phrase, “if possible, and if feasible” or worse, that “a distance of 3-feet would be acceptable”.

Hand-washing: “Many classrooms lack the availability of sinks to allow for regular handwashing, and most schools lack appropriate bathroom space to easily accommodate efficient handwashing with social distancing for large numbers of students.”

Getting back on track

Resolving these issues could help open the door for a safe reopening, the coalition says. It lauded the efforts and planning from school leaders and the state in addressing issues related to school reopening, but did state in its guidance it’s “time to further refine those plans.”

One of the areas of concern in its outline to the state and schools, was the importance of ensuring equity in any decision-making the consideration of Black, Latino and other potentially underserved and disadvantaged communities to be able to leverage resources and cope with fallout from the pandemic.

Another area it highlighted was the need for continued education and training of staff and faculty. As for educators and school nurses, one of the boldest recommendations was that all staff be outfitted with “N95 masks and face shields, as well as gloves, aprons or gowns when working closely during encounters that pose both moderate and/or high risk for transmission.”

Despite the push for online instruction now, the Coalition reinforced that it is their goal, along with the wishes of all families, students, school faculty and leaders, to eventually return to the class.

“Like all involved in this process, we believe the return to in-person learning is the ultimate objective to meet the educational, emotional, social, and psychological needs of our students, with safety at the center of all decisions,” the authors said. “In so doing, ensuring a safe, well planned, adequately funded, and appropriately resourced process must be the overriding priority for all.”


Chris Burt is a reporter and editor for District Administration. He can be reached at cburt@lrp.com