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After a federal ruling, new voluntary standards require only 3 feet of space per student, allows more kids in buildings.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Students returned to Banks Elementary School Monday, March 8. The rules on how schools may reopen have been changing rapidly, catching families and educations by surprise.In yet another about face, the state announced Monday, March 22, that it would drastically reduce the amount of spacing required for students going back to school, to align with new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Oregon schools are now allowed, on a voluntary basis, to provide 3 feet of physical distancing between students "under certain conditions."

Just a week ago, on Monday, March 15, the state announced the safety rules for reopening would be relaxed, but left the 6-feet-spacing requirement unchanged.

School districts have been struggling with planning for returning students to schools amid rapidly changing mandates and guidelines from the state. Some have struck deals with staff unions based on earlier guidelines and would have to reopen union negotiations if the district wants to reduce the spacing requirement.

The 6 feet of distance and 35 square feet per person that had been required meant that only about half of a student body could fit in a school at once when they reopened. Schools announced arrangements for students to be in buildings in shifts in a model called hybrid education. Students would continue remote learning when they were not in school buildings.

But the Oregon Department of Education said the new distancing guidelines announced Monday, March 22, are voluntary.

"This new physical distancing allowance is a local decision. Schools may maintain 6 feet and, under certain conditions, must maintain 6 feet — such as when students from different classrooms are passing in hallways between periods, or when students are eating," the announcement reads.

Other pandemic safety precautions such as wearing masks were not changed.

The state's largest district, Portland Public Schools, will maintain 6 feet of distancing as they reopen after spring break, said district spokeswoman Karen Werstein. The district struck a deal with the teacher's union based on that figure and reducing it would require another round of negotiations.

The ODE announcement reads, "These changes may take place over the next several weeks in some of our schools as every school district will need time to plan and adjust to these new requirements."

Indirectly acknowledging the fast pace of changes districts have been facing, state Education Department Director Colt Gill said "This shift will take time to digest, partner with staff, and integrate in many schools and districts. I know our educators have spent countless hours over the last year stretching to implement different learning models and safety protocols."

Nonetheless, Gill said some districts may want to rejigger their hybrid plans or even consider going back to completely on-site instruction.

Under the new plans, elementary schools must maintain the 3 feet of distancing and staff and students must be at least 6 feet apart "to the maximum extent possible."

Middle and high schools have to keep the 3 feet of distance unless COVID-19 case rates reach certain levels in the county.

Gov. Kate Brown said in the announcement, "With the new recommendations for physical distancing from the CDC, I know I join students, parents and educators across Oregon in welcoming the news that months of scientific research clearly demonstrates the risk of COVID-19 transmission is low in schools."

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