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A limit on the number of contacts students can have has been eliminated but distancing requirements stand.

COURTESY PHOTO - Schools will have to maintain distancing requirements for now.

New state rules issued Monday, March 15, relax a big stumbling block for schools reopening to students for in-person learning, now allowing kids to come in contact with more than 100 people per week in school.

However, the Oregon Department of Education did not change the distancing requirements that severely limit the number of pupils that can be in a classroom at one time, as part of the new rules announced Monday.

Although some studies have indicated 3 feet of distancing is enough for school settings, Oregon's 6-feet rule remains unchanged. Schools must "establish a minimum of 35 square feet per person when determining room capacity" which is equal to 6 feet of distancing.

The distancing requirement means that most schools can serve only about half the students in the building at one time. Students will learn remotely for the other part of their day or week in the model dubbed hybrid learning.

Removing the 100 person contact rule is especially important for middle and high schoolers who change classes multiple times per day and come in contact with many more students than kids in elementary school.

The revised rules simply say that the 100 person limit "has been removed."

Most of the requirements were unchanged. Students will continue other safety measures such as mask wearing and hand washing.

The new guidelines said schools may allow students a "face covering break" if they are distanced more than 6 feet from other students and it is for a "very limited time to support student learning."

The ODE revision also altered COVID-19 screening requirements for students.

Elementary-grade students still will be checked for symptoms of the virus as they enter the school building. But kids in middle or high school now can be screened off-site before they come to school.

On Friday, March 5, Gov. Kate Brown announced that all public schools would have to offer at least some in-person learning by the weeks of March 29 for elementary school and April 19 for middle and high school.

There were rumblings that she would allow some leeway for schools that had plans to reopen buildings but did not meet the new deadlines. The new guidance released on Monday, March 15, said that a week's extension would be given for schools that had announced such plans but were not within the deadline.

Of course, if cases of the COVID-19 virus become dangerously high in a community, schools might have to return to remote instruction.

But the new rules say "Schools are not advised to reduce in-person instruction or to revert to Comprehensive Distance Learning based on county metrics if the school can demonstrate the ability to limit transmission in the school environment."

When Gov. Kate Brown announced that schools would be required to reopen for in-person learning, there was some confusion over whether families would have the option of continuing remote learning.

The new guidelines say that remote learning will continue to be a choice for families who want it.

"Gov. Brown's executive order represents a major step towards our highest priority, returning Oregon's students to in-person instruction," Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill said in the announcement of the new rules.

"This priority goes hand-in-hand with supporting the health and safety of our students, staff and the families they return to each day," he added.

And he said schools provide education but also "social-emotional growth and support, nutritious meals, and access to medical care."

Oregon has about 175,000 students attending school in-person, the ODE announcement said.

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