Guidance calls for much smaller class sizes in schools

More teachers, student rotations may be needed

STATE OFFICIALS are signaling that student-teacher ratios across the state may be far lower when schools reopen in the fall to deal with the coronavirus.

In a preliminary guidance, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education briefed local school officials on what safety supplies will be needed to reopen schools and also alerted them there will need to be far fewer students per classroom to accommodate social distancing.

The guidance calls for maintaining six feet of separation at all times and, where feasible, assigning individual groups of students to one teacher. The guidance says the groups should not mix with other students or staff. “At this time, group sizes are restricted to a maximum of 10 students, with a maximum of 12 individuals, including students and staff, in each room,” the guidance said.

The preliminary guidance, issued by Jeff Riley, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, offers no advice on how schools configured for 20 students and more per class should accommodate the much lower student-teacher ratios.

The department said a full guidance for the fall reopening will be issued in the next week or two.

“I had teachers call me saying, ‘How are we going to do this?’” said Laura Clancey, a Worcester School Committee member and public student mom who started her first term in January. Worcester, which has almost 25,000 students, has been slammed for space over the past few years, with classes being held in basements, she said. A major concern the group is hoping to assess in their next meeting is how personal protective equipment will be paid for, and if more teachers will be needed because of the limitations in classroom capacity.

One North Shore school committee member who did not want to be named said she read the guidance and thought of its influence on bargaining with teachers’ unions. “This will likely alter the requirements and expectations outlined in teacher contacts, which will likely require some sort of bargaining with unions,” she said.

Schools have not been open to students or teachers since mid-March, as districts have shifted to remote learning during the COVID era.

In Revere, Superintendent Dianne Kelly called the guidance “a challenge, without a doubt. It has reset our thinking a bit.”

Revere has around 8,000 students, with class sizes at over 20 per room and, in some cases, up to 28. The district was thinking about a “hybrid model” before the guidance, with one group of students going into school one week, and then staying home the following week to do distance learning while a second group went in for in-person learning. But dividing a class in half looks more like 14 kids in a Revere classroom— not 10.

“It’s not possible if the cap is at 12,” Kelly said. “It becomes more complicated at the elementary level where some kids with significant disabilities have a paraprofessional. Then that’s three adults in the room then nine kids. You’re lowering the amount of kids.”

In order to follow through with Riley’s guidance, Revere would have to consider dividing many classes in three, Kelly said.

“If you have a class of 28 kids, you have to split them into three groups—that’s Week A and Week B and Week C. At what point does it become fruitless to have students come in every third week?” Kelly said. Among the requirements in the guidance is for school departments to order enough supplies for the first 12 weeks of school, something that Riley said should be done sooner than later because of the amount of time it may take to get the materials, including masks, hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, and other things that have been in short supply during the pandemic.

Students will be required to wear masks at school, and districts are asked to provide them for those who don’t have them. Schools will need to develop enhanced protocols for disinfecting, deep-cleaning, and managing school absences due to COVID-19 symptoms.

Schools will also need to have gloves, gowns, and N-95 masks for custodial personnel and staff who come in contact with suspected positive COVID-19 cases and for staffers who have close contact with students, like special education teachers

“To be perfectly honest, getting the PPE we need to have on hand– we are talking millions of dollars. I don’t know where millions will come from,” said Clancey of Worcester.

She’s hoping that Student Opportunity Act funding or additional state intervention will happen, but said it needs to come through soon. Another concern she has is how the district could implement different sessions throughout the day, which would involve more bussing of students. “How do you do arrivals and dismissals?” she said. “The transportation costs are going to be through the roof.”

Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said the guidance appears to reflect Department of Public Health policies, but the approach will cost more money. “You might need more teachers. You might need more space. But who will pay for it? That we don’t know. We would like to reopen school as quickly as we can and safely but as I said, the virus isn’t accountable to us. It’s not like an oil spill we can clean up,” Koocher said.

School committees across the state are talking about using gyms and community spaces for classrooms, and potentially taking rooms away from the arts. A combination of distance learning and in-person instruction is being considered. Double sessions at the high school level are also being considered, but administrators are struggling with how parents would deal with having children home as they prepare to go back to work.

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Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Under the guidance, Kelly said Revere’s school district will need to hire more teachers. “The challenge with that is that you need twice as many teachers. They must have some kind of funding model to do that,” she said. “Don’t tell me in August that we can hire 30 more teachers,” said Kelly, who said districts must have time for the hiring process. “We need to know what our budgets are right now. We have no idea where we are headed and what we can afford. “

Clancey said the opening of school isn’t that far away. She said school starts for teachers on August 27 and for students two days later. “It’s going to take a long time to process all of this and think through every scenario. We can’t have reactive thinking about COVID-19 precautions,” she said.