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Massachusetts Education Commissioner On State's Plan To Reopen Schools In The Fall


Public school officials around the country are spending the summer months designing plans for how educators might resume in-person classes this fall. Massachusetts recently released its guidelines for public schools. Kids in the second grade and up will wear masks. Groups of students will stay together all day - no crowded lunchtime cafeteria. Desks will be at least 3 feet apart.

Massachusetts state education commissioner Jeffrey Riley joins us now to talk more about these plans. Welcome.

JEFFREY RILEY: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: Given the financial crisis, do you have the money you need to implement some of these safety measures like hand-washing stations, PPE, extra cleaning and so on?

RILEY: So at this time, we've sent out a request for grants from the federal government - which we received $194 million - the districts have access to to pay for things like supplies and materials. Additionally, the governor just announced $200 million more to help with these kind of supplies and materials. With that said, we have to wait for Beacon Hill and the governor to finalize a budget later in August.

SHAPIRO: I'm looking at the requirement the desks be 3 feet apart and thinking that some Massachusetts schools have struggled with classroom overcrowding for years. When you layer distancing on top of that, how do you expect classrooms to meet these standards?

RILEY: Well, we've asked the districts to do a feasibility study right now to see what is possible given this new medical parameters that we've been given. And so that may mean that some districts have to stand up additional classrooms, maybe in their libraries, maybe in their auditoriums to be able to meet these needs. But that's why we're going through the feasibility study over the next several weeks.

SHAPIRO: You know, the CDC recommends that people stay 6 feet apart. Can you tell us why the recommendation is for desks to be 3 feet apart?

RILEY: Well, I think the CDC guidance actually says 6 feet when feasible, and the World Health Organization says 3 feet. So what I think the doctors have come to the consensus is there is not much difference between 3 and 6 feet as far as the distance. It's when you get below 3 feet that things get more problematic.

SHAPIRO: So much about this disease has exacerbated existing divides. Do you think the same is going to be true of education in the fall, where students at schools that have struggled financially will suffer more and those that have had the resources are going to be OK?

RILEY: You know, I think in our guidance we put in the need to really focus on districts that have been historically underfunded. And so we want to make sure that schools get what they need to be able to function properly.

SHAPIRO: And of course, this disease has affected people of color disproportionately. And a poll conducted by MassINC finds that while you have the support of a majority of parents to resume in-person learning, Black and Latinx parents are the least confident in the ability of the schools to reopen safely. How do you address that divide and assure those people who have been most at risk that they will, in fact, be safe?

RILEY: You know, I think that poll was done before the Massachusetts chapter of the Academy of Pediatrics came out and endorsed our guidance. And I think, you know, the medical community is behind children going back to school. And I just think that the communication strategy needs to take place so that we get the information out to families.

SHAPIRO: What is your message to those parents?

RILEY: You know, we want to support all of our kids and all of our families. We recognize that different towns and communities have been hit in different ways. And we're going to work with every individual city and town and every individual family to, you know, get education back up and running in a way that works for them. Right? We want to be supportive of our families and kids. And we recognize this is an incredibly challenging time in our history. You know, we certainly want to get our kids back in school. We also recognize that there are concerns from families, and we want to try to address those.

SHAPIRO: The state has not released guidelines for busing, which is a big piece of the puzzle. Is there a way to maintain social distancing on a crowded school bus? I mean, how much does that factor into a decision about how and when to reopen schools?

RILEY: So we have that before our doctors right now. And they'll - going to be advising us on the transportation guidance, which should come out in the next several weeks.

SHAPIRO: Any insight into how that might work?

RILEY: Nope, we're going to wait and see what the doctors have to say. You know, this is a unique circumstance, and we're going to rely on the doctors to really provide us with the guidance.

SHAPIRO: Do you think this generation of kids is going to face long-term consequences from all of these challenges and interruptions to their education?

RILEY: I think it's unclear. I think there may be some educational setbacks that we'll need to remediate. I also think, however, kids are incredibly resilient and will be able to rise above these issues.

SHAPIRO: Jeffrey Riley is the Massachusetts state education commissioner.

Thanks for joining us.

RILEY: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.