The Expert Advisory Panel 4: Public Health, Safety and Logistics held their third meeting over Zoom on Friday, June 26 at 3 p.m. regarding the new guidelines about schools reopening.
The Initial Return to School Guidance guidelines had been posted by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) on June 25.
Members of Panel 4 focused on the health and safety of the public and addressed the adjustments that need to be made for the possibility of returning to school in the 2020-21 school year.
The deputy director of the Emergency Preparedness, Research, Evaluation & Practice Program (EPREP) and the director of the Community Safety Branch, Dr. Elena Savoia, felt as though the guidelines served as a good starting point for districts and schools to build upon.
“This allows schools to implement the number of guidelines that fit their needs and room for the advisory panel to suggest some additional measures, specifically about testing,” Savoia said.
Associate Medical Director of the Infectious Diseases Diagnostic Laboratory at Boston Children’s Hospital, Dr. Nira Pollock, pointed out that there is nothing mentioned about testing positive for COVID-19 in the document and no guidelines provided about what to do if that occurs.
However, DESE plans on providing a checklist of symptoms for families to screen their children for before sending them to school that day, as there will be no temperature checks at the front door.
According to an infectious disease specialist, Dr. Benjamin Linas, DESE Guidelines provide a vision of going to school five days a week. Students and staff in 2nd grade and up will be required to wear masks, provided by the family, and there will be mask breaks during the day. The minimum physical distance between students will be three feet.
For the most part, Linas agreed with the guidelines but would like to see more precautions around social distancing.
“I don’t see anything in the DESE guidelines that I wouldn’t want to follow,” Linas said. “Although I like the idea that if you are anywhere in Brookline you should be wearing a mask and be six-feet socially distant. There is no part of the DESE guidance that I thought was over the top and we should depart from.”
Health care litigator at McDermott Will & Emery LLP law firm, Dave Gacioch, pointed out that three-foot social distancing would be a lot easier to implement in schools but it might account for a higher risk of catching the virus.
“If we do six-feet between desks then there will be 12 people per class which is about half the size of a regular classroom,” Gacioch said. “Changing that to three means very few if any capacity constraints. Six feet is a safer distance because it can compensate for no mask-wearing and poor airflow.”
A fellow doctor in Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at Boston Medical Center, Dr. Lakshman Swamy, stated that he would like to see a system that is not as structured as the one provided and can accommodate many different situations.
“I would love to see something that can adapt to the situation. We can have plans saying, ‘you kids are in these groups, there are circumstances and therefore this is what will happen,’ all the aspects of the situation are flexible,” Swamy said. “The more constrictive we are, the more difficult it will be for parents to accept the situation if the data is different from the predictions.”
Savoia presented a slideshow on ways to optimize the work that Panel 4 does. She suggested getting more input from various sources, such as teachers, staff, parents, students and the school committee as well as dividing into smaller sub-communities to discuss issues more closely.
Savoia explained that communication with the public is something the committee was lacking and needs to be incorporated into their agenda.
“I want us to get more engaged in communication with the community and open a channel of communication either through the school district or something else,” Savoia said. “Timely communication is very important even if you don’t have all the information because, otherwise, people will start making their own assumptions. The community has been waiting for guidance and we need parents to take and promote action.”
The meeting concluded with Pollock’s proposal to create a short summary of the DESE guidelines so families in Brookline better understand what comes next.
“It will be nice for our panel to put out a simple statement and say, ‘We are on board with this,’” Pollok said. “ people in the community can understand that those of us who spend a lot of time thinking about this are comfortable with the guidelines but will explore these additional areas.”