The Oregon Department of Education has updated its “Ready Schools, Safe Learners” guidance to allow students to be three feet apart “in certain conditions” instead of six feet, the state’s previous standard in schools.

ODE’s rule change reflects new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released Friday.

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“With the new recommendations for physical distancing from the CDC, I know I join students, parents, and educators across Oregon in welcoming the news that months of scientific research clearly demonstrates the risk of COVID-19 transmission is low in schools,” said Gov. Kate Brown in a release announcing the change.

“As with so many aspects of our lives this year, schools will not be able to return to normal overnight, as districts will need time to work with parents, educators, and staff to create plans at the local level to implement this updated guidance.”

By shrinking the distance between students, schools can potentially increase the number of students learning in-person simultaneously, or increase the amount of time students spend in-person.

According to ODE’s updated guidance, students at the elementary level are required to be at least three feet apart. For middle and high school students, a three- or six-feet requirement depends on county case rates. If a county has fewer than 200 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people, then three feet is fine. Counties with a case rate over 200 must maintain at least six feet.

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Large counties with case rates per 100,000 people over 200 include Coos and Josephine counties in the southwestern part of the state, according to the Oregon Health Authority’s latest data.

Remaining six feet apart is still required between staff and students. Six feet is also recommended by ODE in common areas, between students who aren’t part of the same cohort, and when masks cannot be worn (when eating, for example).

The change comes on the first day of spring break for most Oregon students, with many schools preparing to welcome staff and students back into buildings next week, under Brown’s executive order, which set a March 29 deadline for elementary students to return. Some school leaders in districts that had been providing entirely distance learning for the last year have already made plans for returning to hybrid or full in-person instruction by Brown’s approaching deadlines.

The hybrid instruction agreement between Portland Public Schools, Oregon’s largest district, and its teachers union, approved by the board Thursday, requires six feet between people in rooms.

In a release announcing the changes, ODE Director Colt Gill said while the shift will impact school plans, he said incorporating the changes should wait until after spring break.

“It is my hope you maintain your spring break as a short time for renewal and come together after the break to plan together on how best to incorporate these changes,” said Gill.

“Given this new and important progression in the science and standards, as set by the CDC, for schools during COVID-19; some schools and districts may wish to consider new models for Hybrid and new opportunities for fully On-Site instructional models,” Gill said. “I strongly encourage school districts and schools to take the time they need to collaborate across school administrators, teachers and staff to convene school planning teams to review the new requirements and recommendations and to consider updating your school’s Operational Blueprint to reflect any changes you will make under the new guidance.”

Education officials have been tightly focused on bringing students back into classrooms this spring for the last two months or so of the school year. But in announcing the latest changes, Brown also looked ahead optimistically to the fall, and the possibility of students spending even more time inside classrooms.

“As we continue to vaccinate more Oregonians every day and work together to drive down COVID-19 transmission in our communities, students and staff will have expanded opportunities and flexibility for in-person learning under this new guidance, as we work towards fully reopening all our schools in the fall.”

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