Malheur County schools have 60 days to devise complex plans to get students back in the classroom

Malheur County students can return to school this fall, but local districts have just 60 days to devise complex plans on how that would be done.

The Oregon Department of Education opened the way for going back to school, releasing on Wednesday a 46-page outline that covers everything from how many students can be in a classroom to mask requirements for school bus drivers.

The state is giving local schools three options for the fall – opening school buildings, sticking with distance learning or a combination of the two.

But the 4,600 or so students in Malheur County returning to their schools would face a far different environment than when they left in March.

Schools will be required to monitor every student entering every school each day, watching for symptoms of the coronavirus. Any student showing such symptoms would be sent home.

Students would be clustered in cohorts, meaning they stay with the same group of peers throughout the school day. Instead of changing rooms for different subjects, teachers would rotate through a set classroom.

The activities of students, teachers and staff would be governed by the social distancing metric – 6 feet. That could mean fewer students in classrooms. Schools are expected to minimize how much time students stand in lines and that there is always 6 feet between them. The state said schools may want to modify school schedules to minimize the number of students in a building at any time, which may require staggered schedules.

The state said teachers, bus drivers and others in close contact with students will be required to wear face masks.

And part of the school day now will be teaching students the practices to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“Model, teach and reinforce physical distancing and hygiene practices at the classroom, school and district level until they become an expected and accepted way of being at school,” the state guidance said.

DOCUMENT: Oregon Department of Education guidance

The details of how each school will fulfill such requirements are to be contained in what the state is calling the Operational Blueprint for Reentry.

“The blueprints will require that every school, under the direction of the district, determine whether they teach all students on site, teach all students through new comprehensive distance learning or utilize a hybrid model,” said a joint statement from Colt Gill, director of the state Education Department, and Pat Allen, director of the Oregon Health Authority. “These individual plans will necessarily look different from community to community.”

“We will proceed cautiously, testing each step as we move forward, and taking a step back if necessary to protect the health and safety of our students, families, and education community,” Gov. Kate Brown said in a statement Wednesday.

The state is requiring each school board to review its plan by Aug. 15 and make it available to the community.

School administrators and teachers will have to digest detailed information from the state, and school districts face increased costs at a time when state school funding may be shaved.

The state agency in a separate statement talked directly to Oregon’s students, assuring them that their health is the priority. School districts are expected to include students in the planning.

“Your teachers and districts benefit from your ideas, imagination and your patience,” the statement said.

“Your teachers are important to how this works and will also be finding themselves stretched to support you and your learning while meeting the public health requirements,” the statement said.

Gill and Allen noted that the rapid shift in April to distance learning strained schools and families. They said the state should brace for even more challenges.

“We believe returning to school, the planning it will require, and the shifts in adult and student behavior it will require will be even more difficult,” the state leaders said.

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