State Offers First Guidance on Reopening Schools for Fall

The Oregon Department of Education offered its first hints of the new guidelines that will be required to reopen schools next year amid the continued coronavirus pandemic and, no surprise, but schools are going to look very different.

The ODE’s detailed list of mandatory and recommended guidelines for reintroducing students to classrooms includes strict social distancing guidelines, cleaning protocols and directions to cluster classes into smaller groups to help manage the potential spread of Covid-19.

“This fall, Oregon will begin a process to provide in-person instruction in our schools again,” said a joint letter by state schools chief Colt Gill and Oregon Health Authority Director Pat Allen. “However, we will still be living under the virus. Communitywide immunity is many months off.”

Acknowledging that each district and even individual schools are unique, the ODE is not setting a statewide plan but rather, is requiring all districts to submit their own blueprints for how they plan on adhering to these new guidelines by Aug. 15.

“A single statewide plan will not serve all districts or schools,” the ODE guidance, titled Ready Schools, Safe Learners, said. “However, every school must demonstrate to their community that it can operate in a manner that will assure that protocols are in place to keep students, staff, and families safe.”

But broadly speaking, districts will have three overarching options for what classes will look like during the 2020-21 school year. They can opt for a model where students return to school buildings for all instruction, continue exclusive distance learning à la the Covid days, or merge the two approaches.

“There will be local control,” explained House Republican Leader Christine Drazan at a community meeting at Canby Foursquare Church Wednesday. A decision as to whether or not our schools are distance-learning schools, brick-and-mortar schools or hybrids will be based on the determination of individual school boards.”

When students are inside school buildings, educators will be required to keep them at least six feet apart, as well as limit the number of people in each room so that each person has 35 square feet of space — including staff.

“The fact is, physical distancing and hygiene are the best tools we have to prevent the spread and every prevention tool we remove increases the opportunity for transmission of the disease,” Directors Gill and Allen said.

The ODE’s guidance makes physical distancing into a science, with every aspect of the school day analyzed: from sitting in classrooms, to standing in line at the cafeteria, to going to the bathroom.

Speaking of bathrooms, the new guidance calls for a lot of cleaning. Staff are to wipe down surfaces after every student’s use, including desks and doorknobs.

For the part of the students, they would be required to wash their hands before and after recess or playing on the playgrounds, and before mealtimes. School playgrounds would remain closed to the general public, and must be disinfected after each group’s use.

One “key strategy” for reducing the spread of the disease is “cohorting,” i.e., grouping students in such a way that they spend most of their time with the same classmates each day. Each cohort must have a system to ensure contact tracing can be completed, and must keep daily logs for the entire group as well as individual students.

Acknowledging that some students are likely to struggle with some aspects of this very new and different way of doing school, the guidance from ODE prohibits students for having difficulty learning or adjusting to the new guidelines.

Face coverings will be required for bus drivers, food service workers and any staff who are regularly in close contact with students. Face coverings are recommended for all staff and students in grades six through 12, but are not required under the current guidelines.

The stringent nature of the guidelines has already raised concerns. Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod on Friday blasted the ODE guidelines as focusing on “countless bureaucratic elements” to the detriment of student instruction.

“The bureaucratic regulations in the education guidance will make it extraordinarily challenging for teachers to focus on their critical job to educate our students,” he said. “I am worried about the quality of the education Oregon students will receive, if they make it to the classroom, with so many distractions.”

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