DESE COVID Guidance for Schools
COVID Supporting Resources
Background and context
As noted in the Updates to DESE COVID-19 Guidance released on May 27, 2021, all districts and schools will be required to be in-person, full-time, five days a week this fall and all previously- released Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) health and safety requirements will be lifted.
Recent updates by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to its Guidance for COVID-19 Prevention in K-12 Schools emphasize the importance of all students returning to full-time, in-person school this fall. The CDC guidance supports the use of vaccines as the primary mitigation measure in school settings, and also continues to recommend masking in K-12 schools. Additionally, according to the CDC, “Because of the importance of in-person learning, schools where not everyone is fully vaccinated should implement physical distancing to the extent possible within their structures, but should not exclude students from in-person learning to keep a minimum distance requirement.”1
Massachusetts has among the highest vaccination rates of any state in the nation,2 and evidence continues to reinforce that the COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective, especially against severe disease.3 At the same time, even for those students not yet vaccinated, the apparent risk of COVID-19 to children remains small.4 5 6 7 These factors continue to reinforce that many previously instituted COVID-19 mitigation measures in school settings are no longer necessary.
In a letter released earlier this month, U.S. Education Secretary Cardona reiterated the importance of COVID-19 vaccine adoption for eligible students. This reinforced the message sent by Department of Public Health (DPH) and DESE Commissioners Bharel and Riley last school year indicating that vaccination is a critical strategy in mitigating the impact of COVID-19 on in-person learning.
Fall 2021 recommendations
This guidance document was developed jointly by DESE and DPH and outlines recommendations on COVID-19 testing and quarantine protocols. It also includes information on DESE’s mask requirements, back-to-school vaccine clinics, local vaccine sites, and public awareness materials for families.
DESE and DPH also continue to encourage schools to maintain ventilation upgrades from this past year as feasible, continue hand hygiene practices, and extend policies for students and staff to stay home when sick. As always, we will monitor the public health situation and may issue additional guidance as needed.
Please note: The DESE COVID-19 Help Center remains open and available for consultation with districts and schools. Please do not hesitate to call with any questions at (781) 338-3500.DESE and DPH will also issue Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) related to this guidance.
· At the special meeting of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (Board) on August 24, 2021, the Board voted to declare “exigent circumstances” pursuant to the Student Learning Time (SLT) regulations, 603 CMR 27.08 (1), and authorized the
Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education to require masks for public school students (age 5 and above) and staff in all grades through at least October 1, 2021. The mask requirement is an important additional measure to keep students safe in school at this time.
· Consistent with the authority provided by the Board, and after consulting with medical experts and state health officials, Commissioner Riley implemented a mask requirement that public school students (age 5 and above) and staff in all grades are required to wear masks indoors in schools, effective August 25, 2021. More details on this requirement and certain exemptions are outlined in the Implementation of DESE Mask Requirement document released on August 25, 2021.
· By federal public health order, all students and staff are required to wear masks on school buses at this time.
· All staff and students must wear masks while in school health offices. For full guidance on school health offices, please see Additional Information for School Health Offices.
Please note: DESE and DPH will continue to consult with medical advisors and DESE may update the masking requirement above as we learn more about COVID-19’s effects on hospitalizations in Massachusetts and on children.
Districts and schools are highly encouraged to maintain or establish a robust plan for COVID-19 testing in schools, including both diagnostic testing and screening (pooled) testing for students and staff. DESE and the Executive Office of Health and Human Services will continue to offer these services at no cost to districts. These no cost services will include optional support for districts who would like additional staff to conduct testing on-site and/or help with testing logistics and communication. Additional information about the SY 2021-22 statewide COVID-19 testing program can be found on the COVID-19 Testing Program section of the DESE website.
Diagnostic testing, such as the BinaxNOW rapid antigen test, is an important tool for use in testing asymptomatic close contacts as part of updated quarantine guidance (see below). Diagnostic testing is especially important this year, as we head into cold and flu season. Districts are strongly encouraged to sign up for the statewide COVID-19 testing program to minimize the number of students required to quarantine outside of school.
Contact tracing and quarantine protocols
DESE and DPH have released a new version of the Protocols for Responding to COVID-19 Scenarios document. As part of this guidance, districts in the statewide testing program or using other approved diagnostic tests will be able to implement a new “test and stay” protocol in lieu of requiring asymptomatic close contacts to quarantine. Under test and stay, asymptomatic close contacts have the option to remain in school and be tested daily with BinaxNOW. Vaccinated staff and students are exempt from quarantine.
Back to school vaccination clinics
A number of schools have hosted vaccination clinics on campus since May, which have served as an important tool in our collective efforts to vaccinate all eligible Massachusetts residents.
Vaccination clinics at schools make vaccinations easier to access and more convenient for students and their families. We urge all schools, and in particular those with vaccination rates below the Massachusetts state average, to host an on-site vaccination clinic during summer orientation events or when classes begin. A DPH-approved mobile vaccination provider, including clinic staff and vaccination administrators, will be provided free of charge. Interested schools can submit their request via our online form.
Local vaccination sites
More than 900 vaccination sites are available across the state and most accept walk-in appointments, including CVS and Walgreens pharmacies, pediatric primary care offices, and community health centers. As a reminder, the COVID vaccine is free for all, and no ID or insurance is needed to obtain the vaccine.
More information on these sites, as well as safety information, and helpful Q&As are all available at www.mass.gov/covidvaccine.
Public awareness materials for families
We encourage districts and schools to use their communications channels including social media, newsletters to parents, and flyers and posters to encourage vaccination.
The successful Trust the Facts. Get the Vax. statewide public awareness campaign is now focused on raising awareness and engaging parents. We know many parents and guardians may have questions about their children getting vaccinated and so the latest TV spot features pediatricians from our community health centers and hospitals on the importance of vaccinating our young people. A Spanish language version is also available featuring Spanish-speaking clinicians.
We continue to urge all school personnel to get vaccinated to protect themselves, their families, and their school community. We appreciate your assistance to keep all of our students, faculty, staff, and volunteers safe and healthy.