This fall, school will look very different for Oregon students. Maybe it’ll look a lot like this spring. Maybe it’ll be more like last fall. Or very possibly, school will be somewhere in between.
The Oregon Department of Education released a blueprint Wednesday for how schools should operate amid COVID-19. And it's up to individual schools to figure out whether teaching will happen on-site, through distance learning, or a hybrid of the two.
“This model, developed under Gov. Brown’s leadership, provides statewide guidance that each school district will use independently to plan for the education and safety of students during the 2020-21 school year,” Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill said in a statement. “We understand and honor the importance of local voice, leadership and control. These individual plans will reflect the distinct strengths and needs of each district and community.”
Schools planning anything on-site must draft plans for public health protocols, school operations and a response to a COVID-19 outbreak.
Schools planning on so-called “comprehensive distance learning” must explain why they are not a offering hybrid of distance and on-site education, and must describe if they may expect to include some on-site learning.
Any on-site teaching brings with it some requirements. Students and staff must be screened for symptoms when they get on the bus or enter school buildings. Schools must establish a minimum of 35 square feet per person for classroom capacity. And staff who regularly interact within 6 feet of students or staff must wear face coverings.
“What the Oregon Department of Education has established is a process for school districts to listen to the community and develop health and safety plans that make sense for each district, each school, and each student,” Brown said in a statement announcing the plan. “Together, 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.”
Districts weigh their options
Planning is underway at school districts around Oregon, including Umatilla.
The rural district started planning for the fall based on the state’s previous summer school guidelines. The current plan is a hybrid system, with students on-site in stable groups four out of five days of the week.
Superintendent Heidi Sipe said there will likely be weekly Friday on-site intervention classes for selected students, while the other students learn online.
Depending on age, Sipe said, students may be in the same cohort for the year or for a quarter. Teachers will record their lessons and put them on Google Classroom.
Now that the Oregon Department of Education's blueprint has been released, Sipe said she and other district staff will get to work revising their current plan based on the agency's directive.
As the state's largest school district, Portland Public Schools spokesperson Karen Werstein said the district has mapped out several scenarios for opening. She said officials expect to start asking school staff and families for their input and preferences next week.
Some districts are working to offer different approaches to education to suit family needs.
Several districts have expressed plans for a hybrid model. Officials contend students want to be in classrooms again, as do teachers and other school staff.
Unlike this spring’s distance learning program, which came together quickly in response to COVID-19 restrictions, the state will require a more thorough learning experience for students in the fall.
“It’s what we’re calling 'comprehensive distance learning,' and it has a higher level of expectation for daily interaction between the teacher and the student, for ongoing instruction and learning and assessment of that learning,” said Gill, the director of the state education department.
Schools will be required to take attendance. For on-site students, attendance will be taken as normal. But in hybrid or online programs, students will have to check in with their teachers at least twice a week to be counted as present for the whole week.
Making space to meet distance requirements
It will take extra time, money, and space to run a school during the pandemic, under Oregon Department of Education and Oregon Health Authority guidelines.
Schools are expected to use physical distancing, extra hygiene, protective equipment (like masks) and disinfection to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Participating in group activities like labs, career technical education, the performing arts or physical education might look different.
Staff in Coquille are already making moves – literally. Superintendent Tim Sweeney said the district office is moving into a local church building to free up classrooms.
The district is repurposing unused rooms, including a locker room, as classrooms to meet the state’s requirements for physical distancing. Sweeney said the district will be able to offer a distance learning or hybrid model, but also serve families who want their students on campus five days a week.
“We believe we will have a plan to meet every family’s needs,” Sweeney said.
To help districts with the potential financial costs, the Oregon Department of Education anticipates giving federal CARES Act money to districts.
About 90% of those funds, or roughly $109 million, will be distributed directly to school districts through a funding formula designed by the federal government, Gill said.
The Oregon Department of Education said it will spend the rest of the federal CARES Act allocation – about $12 million – on districts or schools that don’t receive CARES Act money. Gill said the state is also looking at statewide contracting and procurement for health and safety equipment, as well as investing federal aid dollars into technology and expanding internet access for students across Oregon.
In a statement, the Oregon School Boards Association acknowledged the challenges in safely restarting school while praising the education department's guidance.
“This is unfamiliar ground for all of us, and what works at one school district may look quite different at another,” said Jim Green, executive director of the Oregon School Boards Association. “Above all we are working as local volunteer school board members to find equitable solutions that protect the health of students, staff and the community. ”
The state’s union representing teachers shared a similar sentiment, and added a call for collaboration with educators going forward.
“Additionally, it will also be absolutely essential that school districts engage in meaningful collaboration with both the educators who will be working in schools and providing direct instruction to students, students themselves, and the community-based organizations advocating for those students and families who have been most impacted during the COVID-19 school closures, as they develop their blueprints for reopening in the fall,” Oregon Education Association president John Larson said in a statement.
But reactions to the guidance have not been universally positive.
Rep. Cheri Helt, R-Bend, warned against “excessive and unrealistic state rules” as public schools plan for reopening later this year.
"Failure to open is unacceptable and unfair to all our kids and families," Helt said in a statement on social media. "We cannot sacrifice two years of learning to fear and a lack of creativity. Local districts should be allowed to design safe classroom learning experiences. Until a vaccine arrives, our schools must adapt so every kid can learn, grow and achieve. This virus is temporary, their education is not."
Districts must review and make their reentry blueprints available to the community by Aug. 15.
Oregon plans to release more guidance to schools over the summer – with the next expected update June 30. Gill said Brown is starting a statewide advisory panel to help inform the future guidance.
A work group of Washington education leaders and officials will publish their state's recommendations for reopening by Friday.