Physical distancing rules in fall guidance will reshape schools
A statewide health and safety framework released Wednesday allows local leaders to decide how their schools will offer classes, but logistics pose significant costs for staffing, transportation and cleaning.
The Oregon Department of Education’s fall guidance sketches an education system unlike anything seen before, including components of distance learning. Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Colt Gill said the picture could change as the COVID-19 pandemic evolves and that guidance will be updated regularly into the fall.
OSBA Executive Director Jim Green said that despite some difficult requirements, the framework is what education leaders wanted.
“Tell us what the health and safety guidelines are; don’t tell us how to implement it,” he said. “Let us figure out in our communities how we want to do it.”
The guidance requires districts to submit their operational plans by Aug. 15 to their local school board, the local health authority and ODE and to make it publicly available. It does not require school board approval.
ODE worked closely with the Oregon Health Authority to create the framework. The cost and practicality of the best practices remains to be seen.
Physical distancing rules limit the number of people who can be in buildings and how much they interact. Schools are considering options such as creating staggered schedules and cohorts of students who come to school on different days. For health and safety reasons, some students and staff will still need off-site accommodations.
Green said districts could even treat schools within the same district differently, depending on their size and location.
“This is unfamiliar ground for all of us, and what works at one school district may look quite different at another,” Green said. “Above all we are working as local volunteer school board members to find equitable solutions that protect the health of students, staff and the community. We appreciate that ODE has provided the latitude within its overall guidance to meet those goals.”
Busing costs are one of the biggest concerns. The guidance says buses should have 3 feet between passengers and 6 feet of separation from the driver, making most fleets inadequate to get all students to school at the same time.
Various districts are already making plans to comply with the guidance.
The Umatilla School District has worked with staff using ODE’s summer school guidance and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines. A draft plan would change its middle and elementary schools into two K-8 schools to keep neighborhood cohorts together and minimize transportation needs, said Superintendent Heidi Sipe. The staff group will meet again Wednesday to ensure alignment to the ODE guidance and will submit their final draft to the school board Thursday.
For the most part, Umatilla students would be assigned to cohorts, and teachers would stay with the same class all day. One teacher per grades K-5 would teach online all week. For grades 6-12, teachers would prepare lessons in their subjects for other teachers to deliver, and in-class lessons would be recorded.
Most students would have classes Monday through Thursday, with Fridays set aside for extra on-site instruction for students who need it and online instruction for students working at or above grade level.
Opening schools while following CDC protocols could be prohibitively expensive, according to a cost analysis by AASA, The School Superintendents Association and the Association of School Business Officials. At the same time Oregon schools are facing possible funding cuts as the state wrestles with a $2.7 billion drop in expected revenues. Education advocates are lobbying the Legislature to keep the State School Fund whole, using reserve funds if need be.
Sipe is on the AASA’s task force to help schools during the pandemic. She said Umatilla’s plan stays within its current budget by cutting busing costs and moving all teachers, including specialists, into classroom teaching. Parent choices and student needs could change the staffing needs, though, increasing costs.
“You have to have staff be willing to be incredibly flexible,” she said. “We don’t have the luxury of moving classes and teachers around.”
The Tigard-Tualatin School District is looking at different scenarios by age, with younger students getting more in-person teaching, according to Superintendent Sue Rieke-Smith. She said the district is considering half-day classes because alternating school days would create scheduling nightmares for parents.
Rieke-Smith said the district has learned from this spring’s distance learning and that the fall offers an opportunity to improve education, including addressing inequities.
“If ever there was a time for change, if we don’t seize this moment, then shame on us,” she said.
The ODE guidance includes dozens of boxes schools must check to restart classroom instruction. Districts must establish a minimum of 35 feet per person for room capacity, suggesting that classes may need to spread out to outdoor spaces, gyms and common areas.
Tigard-Tualatin is considering setting up classrooms with an A and a B row of desks. Morning students would use the A row and afternoon students would use the B row, maximizing space while making cleaning more efficient.
Schools are expected to maintain 6 feet of distance between people as much as possible, calling for changes to entrances and exits, hallway patterns, bathroom usage and a host of other daily interactions.
Districts must update their communicable disease plan to include preventing COVID-19’s spread. All teachers and nutrition staff must be trained in safety and health procedures.
Students and staff should be screened each day through a visual inspection for signs of sickness, and anyone who is showing symptoms should stay home.
Face coverings are recommended for staff, but students who choose not to wear them must still be provided access to education. Handwashing should be part of every transition to a new setting, and sanitizer stations need to be set up at entrances.
Everything must be cleaned frequently, and the guidance suggests changes such as replacing soft furniture with furniture that has hard surfaces that can easily be wiped down.
The guidance acknowledges that young people are prone to lots of contact and not so much handwashing. Students should not be punished or excluded from face-to-face learning for failing to adhere to social distancing and other protocols, it says.
Students at higher risk from COVID-19 or with family members in the risk categories cannot be required to attend school, according to the guidance.
OSBA Board President and Baker School Board member Kevin Cassidy said the look of schools this fall will depend on staffing.
“We can come up with some great plans, but what kind of latitude are we going to have in labor agreements?” he said. “Our existing contracts don’t align with a lot of things we are proposing to do.”
Bend-La Pine School District’s goal is to have all children back in classrooms but that would likely require more teachers and funding, said Julie Craig, school board co-chair.
The district plans to survey parents in August about how much distance learning and in-classroom instruction they are comfortable with, she said.
“We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us this summer,” Craig said, “not only to open school but how to change it and make it better.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA