Most Mass. Elementary School Students Returned to Class Monday — But Not All Parents, Health Experts Agree

The majority of elementary school students return to in-person learning despite a record high number of new COVID -19 cases in schools 

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The majority of students in kindergarten through fifth grade in Massachusetts returned to in-person learning Monday as part of the plan outlined by the state's Department of Education.

In Framingham, students like fourth grader Abigail Scafidi said they were excited to finally see their classmates and meet their teachers in person. It was the same for Reese Santos and her sister Reilly.

The state set the April 5 deadline for elementary students to return to class, and Framingham’s superintendent credits the strong working relationship between the administration, school committee and teachers’ association for meeting it.

Now he says, it’s up to everyone to practice the safety protocols to keep in-person learning going -- even though time is running out on the school calendar.

“It’s nice that it's just a short time, so they can have that time and then they have the summer off,” parent Shondra Parejo said.

But not every parent is ready to send their children back to class. One father told NBC10 Boston that the rising COVID cases in Framingham have him keeping his kid at home a bit longer.

Data released last week shows the city’s positivity rate is over 3% and there are roughly 37 new cases -- enough to put Framingham in the state's red zone.

“We just need to take a chance, but safety protocols… we need to follow all this,” parent Maita Gurunz said.

“I feel pretty safe about all the things they’re doing in the schools, reading through all the emails and protocols they have, we felt safe,” Parejo said.

Framingham’s school superintendent says 85% of the district’s elementary students returned Monday.

But while experts say children are less likely to become infected with COVID-19 and those who do have mild to no symptoms, rising cases in schools has some medical experts feeling uneasy.

“I think the medical establishment feels that sending kids back to school, as long as we’re following good practices of physical distancing, mask wearing, good ventilation in schools - that this is the right thing to do," said Dr. Richard Malley of Boston Children’s Hospital.

Massachusetts reported a record high of 1,045 new COVID-19 cases in schools last week amid an overall surge in cases. Data from the state’s Public Health Department shows most new infections are occurring in young people up to age 19.

New data shows the state's pool testing program found COVID-19 positivity rates less than 1% among students and staff.

Experts like Dr. Malley offer a few reasons for the spike: an increase in vaccinations among older adults, the higher likelihood of riskier behavior among young people and a rise in more infectious COVID-19 variants. 

“The way to think about it as a parent is less in terms of whether its safe versus not safe, but rather a balance of factors," Malley said.

The state’s pool testing program in schools found COVID-19 positivity rates of less than 1% among students and staff, which Gov. Charlie Baker has pointed to as proof that in-person learning is safe.

The state approved waivers for 69 districts that aren't ready to return full-time and parents may still opt to have their kids learn remotely for the remainder of the school year.

Not all health experts agree.

The majority of elementary schools in Massachusetts reopen Monday for full-time, in-person learning. Some communities, however, got waivers and will stick with a hybrid model for now.

Dr. Lara Jirmanus, of the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School, said she would not send her own toddler to school if given the choice.

“We have to remember that we’re not vaccinating kids," Jirmanus said. "So as we bring children back into the school, it’s almost as if we’re in fact performing a massive experiment with our youth.”

There’s far less data on how more infectious COVID-19 variants impact children, according to Jirmanus.

“Before even half of our population is fully vaccinated," Jirmanus said, "We’re putting young people into buildings that are often poorly ventilated together.”

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education granted Commissioner Jeff Riley the authority to determine when full and partial remote schooling would no longer count toward student learning time requirements on March 5.

Under the board's plan, middle school students -- primarily sixth through eighth grade -- will return to the classroom full-time by Wednesday, April 28. It's unclear when high schools will reopen.

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