Oregon school districts are getting a fair amount of advice, but fewer mandates than they’re used to, when it comes to opening schools to students starting at the end of next month.

The Oregon Department of Education and Oregon Health Authority laid out several overarching rules in what they’re calling a “Resiliency Framework.” The 23-page set of guidelines replaces the “Ready Schools, Safe Learners” guidance, an evolving set of rules and protocols that directed schools since the pandemic began more than a year ago.

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The biggest overall rule is that ODE expects all students to have a physical school building to attend as the school year begins, a change that Gov. Kate Brown announced at the beginning of the summer.

The guidance also notes federal requirements that neither state nor local officials can modify, such as mandatory wearing of masks on school buses.

“The CDC order for mandatory use of face coverings on public transit applies to school buses until lifted by the federal government and cannot be waived by state or local authorities,” the guidance said, in bold font.

Other than the mask mandate, the framework largely presents state guidance as advice, rather than firm rules districts must follow. That includes a seven-page section titled “Advisory Health and Safety Strategies” that covers everything from vaccination (“OHA and ODE strongly advise schools and districts to offer vaccination clinics throughout the school year”) to ventilation, with specific advice on the flow and filtering of air.

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On face coverings, again the phrase of state officials is that they “strongly advise” the wearing of masks for anyone who is not vaccinated, such as students under 12, for whom vaccines have not been approved. Familiar strategies such as physical distancing and keeping students in cohorts are also “strongly advised.”

The framework also emphasizes the importance of supporting student mental health, as children return to buildings after more than a year away and traumatic losses for some. However, the state cautions against doing broad screenings for mental health, in order to avoid identifying problems that schools aren’t prepared to address.

“ODE strongly discourages the use of school or district wide mental health screenings, particularly where there may be insufficient services and supports to meet mental health service demands,” the framework said. “Instead, we recommend assessing each student on an as-needed basis when questions or concerns regarding their well-being have been identified.”

In terms of learning priorities, the state is coming down on the side of keeping students with their peers, rather than ensuring students are entering a grade having reached similar learning levels.

The new guidance sets “[a] priority for the student to enter school at the grade level associated with their age (compulsory attendance does not begin until age 6 in Oregon) and to be promoted to the next grade level regardless of opportunity to access and fully participate in school during the pandemic and any impact that had on the student’s attendance and academic performance.”

As far as catching up students who may have had technical or other problems accessing instruction during the many months of distance learning, state officials are steering schools away from “remediation” and instead toward “accelerated learning.” In a linked document called “Student Learning: Unfinished Not Lost,” the state emphasizes it’s “critical to focus attention on accelerating learning by investing in relationships, honoring student voice, and designing integrated learning.”

The state’s guidance precedes that priority with an emphasis on equity, and “promoting educational systems that support every child’s identity, health and well-being, beauty, and strengths.”

While the Resiliency Framework defers to school districts on what safeguards and procedures it plans to put in place for the coming fall, state officials are requiring that local leaders share those plans by Aug. 23.

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