COVID-19 cases are declining, mask mandates have changed, and anyone 12 and older can get vaccinated. Next fall, state officials are planning for a school year that may look somewhat normal.
Oregon Department of Education director Colt Gill shared an update with the Oregon House subcommittee on COVID-19 last week.
“The plan for next school year is to welcome back all students, full-time, every day, in person,” Gill said.
That same day, the state released draft “Ready Schools, Safe Learners” guidance, as summarized by the Oregon School Boards Association. According to the guidance, ODE will share final fall guidance for schools July 22.
During the session with legislators, Gill stressed a focus on equity and health and well-being as students return to classrooms following the experience of living through a pandemic.
One thing Gill hoped will remain beyond the pandemic is the greater community and family engagement in education.
“We want to continue to build on that, and make sure that’s a part of efforts going forward, and note that there are still new and different ways,” Gill said. “And that we don’t fall into the older patterns …that some of our families didn’t feel like they had that access.”
He also outlined some of what will change and what will remain the same come fall. Schools will still need isolation spaces and have a communicable disease plan in place that includes COVID-19.
Some things will still be managed by the state.
Mask mandates have changed recently, but Gill said they will likely still be required in some cases. Three feet of physical distancing will “likely be a part of the picture,” Gill said, when possible and when it doesn’t keep a school from offering full-time, in-person learning.
But other decisions will fall to local districts, including transportation, screening, cleaning and disinfecting procedures, and whether visitors or volunteers will be allowed.
And there are other things still being figured out, including how to keep student quarantines from being so disruptive. A recent outbreak at La Pine High School in Central Oregon forced nearly half of staff and students into quarantine, the Bend Bulletin reported.
The state also plans to update standards for online schools to make sure materials meet state standards and are approved by a school or charter board. It’s a reflection of the increased attention and enrollment in online education because of COVID-19.
“We think that those things are important,” Gill said. “They were not frankly in place in Oregon, pre-pandemic, that wasn’t a space where there were many students, and it wasn’t an area where this state had a lot of standards - so we want to make sure that’s in place as we anticipate more of our students in those models.”
Several Oregon school districts have announced plans to reopen full-time in the fall, with Oregon’s largest district, Portland Public Schools, passing a resolution last week to commit to finding the “solutions that will allow for a return to full-time, five days a week in-person instruction” next year. The resolution also requires PPS to offer a virtual learning option for families and students unable to return to in-person learning “for health reasons.”
“The district will provide a virtual learning option at least until COVID-19 vaccines are widely accessible to school-aged children,” according to the resolution.