The Oregon Department of Education released guidance for freshmen, sophomores and juniors that maintains the requirements to earn a high school diploma but requires districts to move from letter grades to pass or incomplete results for the rest of this academic year.

Related: As Oregon Schools Roll Out Distance Learning, Some Students May Be Left Behind

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The state said the plan focuses on the mental, social and emotional needs of high school students.

"Our commitment to safeguard our students’ future and mitigate negative consequences from lost learning time due to COVID-19 remains strong," ODE director Colt Gill wrote in the Wednesday night message to superintendents and principals announcing the guidance.

The new plan, like earlier guidelines sent out for seniors, acknowledges the challenges of distance learning. Along with eliminating letter grades for the rest of the year, it also includes a "Safeguarding Student Opportunity Clause" for students who are not able to be located or engaged by their school.

The clause requires schools to document attempts to reach students and their families. If a district has made multiple unsuccessful efforts to reach a family, the student will receive a pass or incomplete grade based on where they stood at the time schools closed. So, high school students who were passing classes before schools closed will not be “academically penalized."

Even if a student receives an “incomplete,” schools are expected to partner with students and their families to create a plan to earn credit next school year.

Universities around the country, including Harvard, have said they will not penalize students with pass/incomplete grades.

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The executive director of the Oregon School Boards Association praised the state’s new plan in a written statement:

“This is a thoughtful, statewide approach that keeps our high school students on track to graduate. It mirrors what many colleges and districts around the country are doing, and we appreciate how ODE has reached out to partners and communities of color to ensure that students are treated equitably,” executive director Jim Green wrote. “Distance learning during this pandemic creates challenges, but this approach for grades 9-11 allows the best options to meet all students’ needs. We encourage districts to work with community-based organizations to help reach students from our communities of color and those with special needs.”

Schools are expected to provide care and a sense of community at this time – that should be the first priority, Gill said during a state meeting Thursday.

“There really is a Maslow’s Hierarchy to the way we go about it, it’s not just school for everybody and pretending like nothing happened,” he said.

Concerns about being able to equitably serve all students from a distance have been expressed by education officials at both the state and local level. Officials are trying to work through those equity issues by providing technology or other resources for students. While officials say they’re doing the best they can, Eugene schools superintendent Gustavo Balderas said inequality will likely persist.

“It is not fair for all, and the disparities that are currently in our systems have really been magnified during this time,” Balderas said during Thursday’s meeting.

At the moment, the state department of education said it is offering support to districts – but there isn’t a monitoring system for how well districts are serving students or whether districts are meeting the state’s expectations for distance learning.

Going forward, Gill said, the state is working on more guidance for students in kindergarten through eighth grade, and more information on how to address the digital divide. The state has also released guidance on serving students with disabilities and suggestions for how schools can continue to offer career technical education, including examples for projects students may be able to complete from home.

The guidance for high school students comes a week after the state shared its plan for seniors: Students who were on track to graduate when schools closed in March will get their diplomas. Seniors who were not passing one or more classes will be contacted by their teachers to create a possible pathway to graduation.

Seniors have until Aug. 31 to pass their courses and graduate with their class.

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