"We teach kids how to tie their shoes and how to read, and this is just another thing that we'll teach them," Indianapolis Public Schools superintendent Aleesia Johnson tells PEOPLE

By Joelle Goldstein
July 10, 2020 02:00 PM
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As the upcoming school year quickly approaches, parents across the nation are wondering how school officials plan on ensuring the safety of their students, faculty and staff amid the coronavirus pandemic.

A major question that seems to be at the forefront of the discussions is whether facial coverings will be required throughout the day if schools bring students back for in-person instruction.

For a large number of districts around the country, including Miami-Dade County Public Schools and New York City Public Schools — both of which have been COVID-19 hotspots — the answer to this question is a definitive yes.

Miami-Dade's school board approved a plan on July 1 —  a day after Dr. Anthony Fauci warned that coronavirus cases could reach 100,000 per day nationwide — that called for the reopening of schools this fall with mandatory masks for everyone, as well as smaller classes and a mix of in-person and online instruction, according to The Miami Herald.

Similarly, in New York City, officials announced on July 2 that "multiple plans" to bring kids back to school were in the works and that facial coverings, as well as social distancing practices, would be mandatory.

Mayor Bill de Blasio later confirmed that students would be welcomed back through a mix of in-school and at-home learning, with most attending school two days per week so that there would be enough space in the building and classroom. However, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said a decision about reopening schools would not be made until August.

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Indianapolis Public Schools superintendent Aleesia Johnson tells PEOPLE the district is giving all 31,000 students and their parents the option to attend in-person classes or participate in virtual learning, giving families the freedom to decide.

The school district will enforce a mask requirement for students who choose to attend in-person classes or ride IPS buses, though Marion County — which oversees 10 other schools — is only requiring it for students who are in the 6th grade and above. Exceptions at IPS will be made for students and staff who have health conditions or physical disabilities that prevent them from applying and removing the facial covering.

"We understand that wearing masks for some children might be a little bit challenging, but we teach kids how to tie their shoes and how to read, and this is just another thing that we'll teach them and help them learn and get used to and understand the importance of," Johnson says.

She also notes that there will be designated "mask-break" times throughout the day (such as when students are outdoors for physical education) and other safety measures, including social distancing, assigned seats on buses, eating lunch in classrooms and requiring fillable water bottles instead of drinking directly from fountains.

Meanwhile, public schools in Texas, Pennsylvania, Utah and North Carolina have all said they're requiring masks in their buildings for everyone. Seattle Public Schools will also require masks, their media specialist confirms to PEOPLE.

But not all schools that are physically bringing students and faculty back will be making facial coverings mandatory.

For Columbus City Schools in Ohio, masks will be required for all staff and students who ride on the Columbus City buses, but will only be "recommended" for students in the schools.

A PowerPoint presentation given by the city's Reopening Task Force on June 30 indicated that their plan to ensure safety is to split students into two groups and have them come into school twice a week (either Monday and Tuesday or Thursday and Friday).

The remaining three weekdays will serve as remote learning days for the students, while teachers will be required to provide in-person instruction four days out of the week, leaving Wednesday as the designated "support services" and cleaning day.

Like IPS, there will be other safety measures, including social distancing and installing physical barriers and hand sanitizer machines in every building.

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Buford City Schools in Georgia said it will be adopting a policy that makes masks "strongly encouraged" for students in schools, but required on buses. Meanwhile, Buford City staff will only be mandated to wear masks in common areas and when social distancing is not possible.

Larger school systems like the Department of Education in Orange County, California — a system that oversees 600 public schools — and Minnesota's biggest school district, DeSoto County Schools, confirmed that facial coverings are "encouraged" for students and staff, especially when social distancing is not feasible, but not required.

Other areas of the country, like Dickson County Schools in Tennessee, said masks are only "optional" for students and staff, according to The Tennessean.

The Center for Disease Control maintains its stance that although face coverings may be "challenging for students (especially younger students) to wear in all-day settings," wearing one can prevent the spread of the virus.

As of Friday, there have been over 3.1 million cases and 133,079 deaths attributed to coronavirus in the United States, according to the New York Times.

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