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Kids must stay 6 feet apart, wash hands on entering the building and teachers must be masked

PMG FILE PHOTO - Social distancing will be difficult under the school repoening guidelines for groups such as Gresham's Dexter McCarty Middle School choir.

When, or if, Oregon school buildings open in the fall, state guidelines for reopening will make school very different for students and their families.

Some of the rules will be challenging for kids and staff. Imagine a kindergartner remembering to keep 6 feet of space between her and her new best friend.

"We're going to have to get really creative about how we teach and interact," Colt Gill, director of the Oregon Department of Education said.

The Oregon Department of Education guidelines released Wednesday, June 10, are designed to help schools formulate plans to safely open in the fall and ODE said schools can use distance learning, traditional classes in school buildings or a mix of both.

Under the banner of "Ready Schools, Safe Learners" the required plans apply to public, charter and private schools for the 2020-21 school year. The guidelines will "pave the way for a return to in-person instruction," Gill said in a video.

These rules could prompt schools to have every other day or half-day schedules for in-person education, with students doing distance learning on their "off" days. That could present a continued challenge for working parents.

The guidelines require kids 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 any given time.

Teachers and staff, including school bus drivers, must wear masks. Front office staff and others — such as speech pathologists — must wear clear plastic face shields. Students will not be required to mask up.

Schools must have a log of students to facilitate contact tracing, if the need arises.

Desks, door handles and other "high touch" surfaces must be disinfected between student use. Students can't share pencils or crayons.

Students and staff will have to wash their hands for 20 seconds after entering the building. School visitors will be limited.

For "higher risk" activities and areas such as band, choir, science labs and locker rooms, schools need to consider additional distancing and maybe do the activities in a gym, cafeteria or outside.

Schools are to "cancel, modify or postpone" field trips, assemblies, athletic events, practices, performances, school-wide parent meetings or any large gatherings to accommodate social distancing.

Gill said Gov. Kate Brown's office and the Oregon Health Authority are coming up with guidelines for high school sports.

The guidelines said schools must plan for "additional support" for kids who have trouble with social distancing.

And those kindergartners? Danna Diaz, superintendent of the Reynolds School District, acknowledged social distancing will be a challenge for the littlest learners, "they love touching each other."

But Diaz said her music teachers have created catchy songs to reinforce social distancing and hand washing and she hopes that will help the smallest scholars.

Calling the guidelines "a critical step in ensuring the safety of both students and educators," John Larson, president of the teacher's union Oregon Education Association said in a statement, "it will also be absolutely essential that school districts engage in meaningful collaboration with both the educators who will be working in schools and providing direct instruction to students, students themselves, and the community-based organizations advocating for those students and families."

The Department of Education encouraged flexibility as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Oregon and directed school districts to make plans that are "tailored to the local context and informed by local needs." The plans should be designed to be updated through the summer and into the school year, Gill said.

Each school must come up with a plan and submit it to the district. ODE dubs the plans as an "Operational Blueprint for Reentry."

The blueprint has to cover eight key elements including public health protocols, equity, instruction and family and community engagement. The blueprint must be reviewed by the school board and posted on district and ODE websites no later than Aug. 15.

"The blueprint will evolve throughout the year based on school district, public health, and community feedback, as well as incorporate new health and safety guidance to adapt to the COVID-19 situation as it changes," the ODE's announcement said.

Districts are also supposed to design communicable disease management plans and contingency plans in case there is a flare up of COVID-19 in the community. That might mean a return to remote learning for all students or modifying the school year.

In an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19, schools buildings closed in mid-March and Gov. Kate Brown eventually extended the building closures through the end of the school year. Starting April 13, districts were required to provide remote learning for all students.

The reopening plans are complicated with all sorts of considerations such as planning for employees that would not be able to come to work because they or a family member are at high risk if they contracted the coronavirus. Bus transportation will likely be a challenge.

Districts have not been waiting for the guidelines to plan for reopening in the fall.

Portland Public Schools has been "leaning into the work" of planning while waiting for the guidelines, Brenda Martinek, PPS's chief of student support services said at a recent board meeting.

PPS has been collaborating with four other large school districts — Beaverton, Salem-Keizer, Hillsboro and Eugene — to prepare for fall opening.

Claire Hertz, PPS deputy superintendent for business and operations, said the district has been planning for possible issues such as proper signs, adequate hand sanitizer and face coverings, extra cleaning and temperature checks for students and staff.

With most school districts making budget cuts next year, these extra expenses are another jolt.

"We believe we have the money in the budget (for reopening expenses)," Hertz said.

And the Oregon Department of Education stressed that reopening should be planned through an "equity lens" so that all students are equally considered.

ODE said, "This guidance is being released during a somber moment in a history we can have difficulty reconciling, including healing from the ongoing suffering caused by white supremacy."

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