Some students may start in-person learning in schoolhouses for two hours per day.

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND PUBLIC SCHOOLS  - Portland Public Schools Board Vice Chair Scott Bailey and Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero visit with students prior to the pandemic.

Portland Public Schools is planning on bringing some students back into school buildings beginning as soon as Monday, Jan. 25, starting with 16 elementary schools and two high schools.

"We're aiming for a start of Jan. 25," said Shawn Bird, chief of schools.

The 16 elementary schools will focus on the youngest students, those in kindergarten through third grade, district officials said at a school board meeting Tuesday, Jan. 12. The first schools will be ones with childcare on-site and schools where more students struggle to achieve.

"The community will hear more of these details in coming days," said Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero. The state is expected to announce additional guidance for schools on Tuesday, Jan. 19, which could alter plans.

None of the schools were named during the meeting and the district did not say how many of the district's 50,000 students the plan will cover.

The students will only be in buildings for two hours per day and also will still engage in the remote learning they have been doing since March of 2020.

The students will be limited to groups of 13 to 15 students to restrict the number of students they come in contact with during the school day, the school board learned.

The first groups in high schools to be brought back will be ninth, 11th and 12th graders who are lagging in the credits they need to graduate from high school.

Middle school students, when they are added, will be sixth graders that have not performed well in the first term of school this year, Bird explained.

After an initial group, more schools — mostly those targeted for improvement and high-poverty schools that get extra funds from the federal government — will be added in February.

Guerrero said the district needs more clarity about the availability of vaccines to its 8,500 employees and the logistics of getting all of them inoculated.

He also said there needs to be "frequent and free COVID testing" for schools to open buildings to more than a few students.

Oregon Health Authority's current plan is to have students with symptoms or exposure administer a test on themselves with a swab test while a "trained" adult supervises them.

"Distance learning has been difficult," Guerrero acknowledged in the meeting. Several parents spoke at the virtual meeting strongly advocating for re-opening school buildings.

PPS plans depend on multiple factors such as the spread of the virus, vaccination schedules and how many teachers are willing to work in buildings.

To bring students back to buildings, schools still have to follow 164 mandated safety rules for opening, although those may change with the new guidance on Jan. 19. But under current rules, each student must have 35 square feet of space, keep 6 feet of social distance and be masked, among other mandates.

Guerrero said that many of Portland's schools are old and providing the 35 square feet of space per person is difficult.

"This is a continually evolving situation we find ourselves in," he said.

Many teachers and their unions were balking at returning to school without being vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus. But on Tuesday, Jan. 12, Gov. Kate Brown abruptly announced educators would begin to get vaccinations on Jan. 23, almost a month sooner than officials had said just days earlier.

The earlier vaccination start for educators, school staff and anyone in the population 65 or older came after the federal government announced it would release a reserve supply of vaccines and the Centers for Disease Control changed its vaccine guidance.

Gov. Brown asked those newly eligible for vaccinations not to call their doctors or providers to ask about vaccines.

"Oregon health care providers are working as fast as humanly possible to shift their vaccine distribution plans to meet this sudden change of national guidance," she said.

This story will be updated as more information becomes available.

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