Submitted by Ann Kiessling
On December 10, Jeffrey Riley, Commissioner, Massachusetts Division of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), issued “emergency” amendments to Student Learning Time (https://mailchi.mp/doe.mass.edu/commissioners-weekly-update-12-21-20-board-recap-student-learning-time-updated-quarantine-guidance#updatedquar) in response to “…a distressing increase in the mental health challenges our students are facing.” The amendments will be effective January 19, 2021.
According to Commissioner Riley, in October, the U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported an alarming increase in child emergency department visits for mental health-related reasons for children aged 5-11 and 12-17 years of 24% and 31%, respectively. “Feelings of isolation and disconnection among our students are a contributing cause to this growing mental health crisis, the effects of which may persist for years.” Further, he states “We know that one way to prevent the isolation and disconnection that many students are feeling is frequent connections and interactions with teachers and peers.”
Moreover, on December 4, 2020, the CDC issued guidance for testing for SARS-CoV-2 in K-12 Schools: “With the increased availability of tests, these considerations are intended to provide guidance on the appropriate use of testing for SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) in K-12 schools for surveillance, diagnosis, screening, or outbreak response. Schools can help protect students and their families, teachers, staff, and the broader community and slow the spread of COVID-19.” (www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/k-12-testing.html)
The increased availability of tests includes lower cost, on-site tests that could be administered by Bedford school staff under “work-place safety” guidelines from CMS (CMS.gov). The school testing strategy should start with teachers and staff, and then possibly be extended to students, as desired by the school community.
This new CDC guidance is in keeping with the CDC’s overall views, as expressed on their website: “The many benefits of in-person schooling should be weighed against the risks posed by COVID-19 spread. Of key significance, in-person learning is in the best interest of students, when compared to virtual learning.” Further: “Education and promotion of positive and supportive relationships between teachers, students and staff should remain the primary focus of school administrators, teachers, and staff.” And: “To be sure, the best available evidence from countries that have reopened schools indicates that COVID-19 poses low risks to school-aged children.”
These more recent views of the CDC agree with September guidance from the World Health Organization (WHO.int): “At the forefront of all considerations and decisions should be the continuity of education for children for their overall well-being, health, and safety. Based on the best available data, COVID-19 appears to have a limited direct burden on children’s health, accounting for about 8.5% of reported cases globally, and very few deaths.” Further, “Children under the age of 12 years should not be required to keep physical distance at all times. Where feasible, children aged 12 years and over should keep at least 1 metre (3 feet) apart from each other. Teacher and support staff should keep at least 1 metre apart from each other and from students.” Further, “When keeping at least 1 metre distance is not practical or hampers support to students, teachers and support staff should wear a mask.” Moreover, “The shutting down of educational facilities should only be considered when there are no other alternatives.”
Bedford schools are at relatively low risk for SARS-CoV-2. The extreme 6 foot social distancing currently adopted by the Bedford School Committee, in contrast to the WHO guidance of 3 feet, is to avoid spread of COVID19 by persons who do not know they are infected. Testing alleviates this unknown, allowing teachers, staff and students to return to their most important business at hand: LEARNING. The Town of Bedford’s new program of “Free Testing” for residents implies the town has the financial resources to support the schools in developing testing strategies, which will undoubtedly be less expensive than hiring new staff and equipping new classroom spaces.
Current DESE, CDC and WHO guidance support and facilitate Bedford kids returning to school full time.