Despite new guidelines, Portland students will remain 6 feet apart on campus

As visitors shuffled through the entryway at Jason Lee Elementary School, Principal Alma Velazquez stretched out her arms in a makeshift airplane.

It's an exercise Velazquez and staff at the eastside Portland school employ to get students used to lining up while spaced apart. Students at Portland Public Schools campuses still will be seated and spaced 6 feet apart when schools reopen for hybrid instruction starting Thursday, April 1, despite revised federal guidance that says just 3 feet is sufficient for K-12 students.

That's because the months of planning and negotiating with the district's teachers union has all been predicated on the 6-foot rule. Reconfiguring class or cohort sizes could require substantial retooling, and a new bargaining process with teachers and represented staff that could lead to further delays in returning students to school.

"It would require negotiating again with the union to make that change," PPS Public Information Officer Karen Werstein confirmed. "We have also made all of our logistical plans based on that number—transportation, bus routes, classroom design/configuration, etc."

PMG PHOTO: JON HOUSE - Alma Velazquez, principal at Jason Lee Elementary School, points out an air purifier with a HEPA filter in a classroom. Portland Public Schools has promised to equip all classrooms with HEPA filters to help combat the spread of COVID-19 as teachers and students prepare to come back to school.Following a Friday, March 19, announcement from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that schools can now space students just 3 feet apart, the Oregon Department of Education announced the next Monday that it would follow suit without requiring schools to adopt the new guidance.

"This new physical distancing allowance is a local decision," an announcement from the Oregon Department of Education states. "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."

Regardless of the exact distance between kids, the important thing is they'll be able to see their teachers, and each other, in person again soon.

"We're excited. We feel like we're ready. Our systems are in place," Velazquez said during a tour of Jason Lee Elementary Friday, March 19. "People have practiced our protocols so I'm confident that we're going to just do great and have the students return in in-person instruction, be with their teachers again, reconnect with their peers."

The school has been open to a select number of students for very limited in-person instruction for roughly a month, but come April 1, the school's youngest grades will return four days per week for hybrid instruction. Higher grades will return in phases during the following weeks.

The school district plans to bring K-5 students back for two hours and 15 minutes per day. Middle and high schoolers will go back two days per week, for two and a half hours each day. The rest of the school week will see students learning from home, as they have been since March 2020.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Portland Public Schools Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero inspects a symptom room at Jason Lee Elementary School Friday, March 19. Schools in the district have been preparing campuses for the return of students and staff in April.To prepare for the influx of students, PPS campuses have created makeshift symptom rooms with rapid COVID-19 testing for any students or staff who exhibit virus symptoms. Classrooms have been equipped with HEPA air purifiers and everyone who enters a school must wear a mask and sanitize their hands first.

At Jason Lee Elementary, everyone who enters is directed to a sign-in sheet and hand sanitizer. The school bathrooms now only allow as many students as there are bathroom stalls and directional signage and arrows guide students as they walk through the halls.

In the attendance office, plexiglass barriers provide an extra layer between staff and students.

Initially, the district showed plans that included a simulcast model, where teachers would livestream from the classroom to deliver instruction to students in class while those at home tuned in. That model will be optional for teachers. Instead, teachers will spend a portion of their day teaching in-person students, while the remote learners receive instruction at a different time.

"While it may sound like simultaneous means the same, I think educators' perspective was really that if students at home are sort of watching what happens in class, that's not the same as what they're doing now, which is interacting directly with kids through the screen, talking to them, texting with them," said Elizabeth Thiel, president of the Portland Association of Teachers. Thiel said teachers pushed back on the simulcast model, noting they don't believe it best serves the needs of kids.

Not all teachers and students will be back on campus.

Thiel said the union and school district are working on a plan to find remote-only positions for teachers who have medical conditions that put them at higher risk of infection, or live with someone at higher risk.

Students who want to remain in the distance learning model will also be able to stay home.

"We recognize that there are diverse perspectives on what schools should be doing," PPS Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero said Friday. "Everyone's an epidemiologist overnight, and so we have to do our best to balance what the facts are with what the science tells us. … This represents, I think, our best attempt to implement a model that offers that balance of virtual and continued distance learning for the remainder of the school year."

You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.