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Oregon will distribute 5 million masks for school children and staff to help them stay safe under updated reopening plans.

PMG PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - This scene of students learnig together at tables won't be possible if schools open to socially distanced learning in the fall. The state will distribute 5 million masks to school districts after Gov. Kate Brown's Wednesday announcement that children 5 and older will be required to wear masks in public starting Friday, July 24, to tamp down the spread of the coronavirus.

COLT GILL"To help school districts meet this new requirement, (Oregon Department of Education) is distributing 5 million face coverings to school districts, for use by students and staff. The 5 million face coverings, donated by Federal Emergency Management Agency and officially called KN95 face masks, will be distributed to education service districts and then to school districts over the next few weeks," the department announced in a Wednesday, July 22, update to its school reopening guidelines.

The department of education's initial guidelines required educators and school staff to wear masks, but not students. If the new mask requirement for children stays in place through early September, almost all students will be required to wear them if they return to school buildings.

Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill said in a statement that the 5 million masks "will help ensure that access to face coverings will not become a barrier to meeting the new requirement."

Limiting people in schools

Since the guidelines were first announced more than a month ago, the coronavirus pandemic has picked up steam. As of Tuesday, July 21, 269 Oregonians have died from the virus. The number of new cases has steadily increased.

The Oregon Department of Education released its first guidelines for schools to reopen safely amid the coronavirus pandemic on June 10. Schools statewide have to follow multiple strict guidelines for the safety of students and staff as schools reopen in the fall.

The June 10, ODE guidelines require students and staff in school buildings to have a minimum of 35 square feet per person and 6 feet of social distancing. There will be a limit to the number of people allowed in school buildings at one time.

To safely teach students, most school districts tentatively are leaning toward a hybrid model in which students learn in person a couple of days per week and remotely the other days, putting only half the student body in a building at one time.

Portland Public Schools, Gresham-Barlow School District, Centennial School District and others have announced they tentatively plan on variations on a hybrid model. Some school districts, including Gresham-Barlow, are offering completely remote learning for families that do not want to send children to school during the pandemic.

Protecting students and staff

The guidance also said that districts could close particular schools if a flare-up of the virus occurs. If there is disagreement about closing a school or district, "The state public health director at the Oregon Health Authority has broad authority to close a facility that presents a public health risk." ODE Director Gill also has authority to close a school.

Statewide guidelines are coming for schools regarding protocols for various scenarios that could arise if outbreaks of COVID-19 occur. President Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have pushed for schools to open nationwide. The administration has threatened to withhold federal funding to districts that don't open schools. Some school district employee unions have pushed back against opening schools because they are worried about the safety of their members.

Oregon Education Association Vice President Reed Scott-Schwalbach said in a statement: "Nobody wants to get students back in the classroom more than educators, but we have to make sure we are taking the appropriate steps to protect the health and safety of students and staff. That means requiring public health practices in our schools that have been proven to be effective like social distancing and the use of face masks, and setting minimum public health benchmarks that our communities need to maintain in order to resume face-to-face instruction in our schools."

The state guidelines require schools to have fall reopening plans in place by Aug. 15. Plans will be posted on the Department of Education web page.

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