Oregon gives school districts green light to make COVID-19 decisions
Oregon has laid down its COVID-19 education rules for 2021-22. Local school leaders will mostly be making the decisions — and taking the heat.
The Oregon Department of Education updated Thursday the “Ready Schools, Safe Learners Resiliency Framework.” The framework is a more detailed version of the “Ready Schools, Safe Learners Resiliency Framework” released June 25, but it did not change its rules or recommendations.
The guidance applies to summer programs as well as the next school year. ODE’s goal is for students to return to full-time, in-person instruction. The guidance is mostly advisory, allowing for more local decision-making than last year. OSBA offers a COVID-19 FAQ webpage to help districts sort through the issues.
Among the hottest topics, ODE strongly recommends face coverings for students and staff indoors but does not require them. Masks are still required on school buses by federal rules.
School boards around the state have faced passionate pleas for and against masks.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said vaccinated staff and students don’t need to wear masks indoors, but it recommended masks for unvaccinated people. Last week, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended masks for all students and staff.
CDC data show masks are an effective barrier to disease transmission, especially when used in conjunction with other protective measures. Health agencies around the globe are recommending them as part of a layered “Swiss cheese” model. Any one preventive measure has holes, but several layered on top of each other create a more complete barrier.
ODE also strongly advises maintaining 3 feet of physical distancing, handwashing and other hygiene supports, cohorting, and improved ventilation and cleaning.
The 10-day drop rule and all requirements for how many hours of instruction students must receive are returning to normal. Students who are absent for more than 10 days are considered to have withdrawn, but ODE says those students should be re-engaged without a full enrollment process. ODE has also laid out rules for calculating attendance and when to allow students to progress grades.
School leaders must submit an operational plan by Aug. 23 similar to the one required last year but less detailed. The plans will also fulfill requirements for receiving federal emergency funds.
ODE has received positive responses to its framework for allowing communities to devise their own plans, spokesman Marc Siegel said.
Superintendents have been cautious, however, about revealing their plans before ODE’s final framework was available. Public scrutiny during COVID-19 has been intense, with outrage and protests following some decisions.
“We have a lot of trepidation regarding putting out our final response to the resiliency framework because of our experience last year in making decisions that angered roughly half of the population at any one time,” said Karen Gray, Lincoln County School District superintendent.
Gray said her district’s leaders had not finalized their plan yet but they were leaning toward making masks optional and to support students who wanted to wear them. She said her community would be strongly opposed to mandatory masks.
Lincoln County also plans to practice 3 feet of social distancing when possible and to keep the additional custodians it brought in last year for extra cleaning.
Gray said clear and thorough communications about their plans with the public and teachers will be crucial. She urged school leaders to get their messages out now so people have time to ask questions and understand.
Baker School District Superintendent Mark Witty said earlier last week he has mixed feelings about the guidance’s advisory nature. He said there is some benefit to having a reasoned approach across the state that creates similar opportunities and safeguards for students. Although putting the discussion in each community allows for locally tailored outcomes, it also raises challenges when trying to balance safety interests with public demands.
“I can find somebody to say we shouldn’t be in school at all, and I can find somebody who says there shouldn’t be any restrictions,” he said. “Every school district, every board, is trying to weigh their options and do what is best for kids.”
Baker has been working closely with its health department to develop its plans. The district is considering no masks for grades 7-12 and allowing elementary students to go without masks when they are with just their own cohort, Witty said.
He said his biggest concern is an outbreak or a variant disease closing schools again.
“We want to do everything we can to minimize the chances of shutting a school down while also respecting local wishes to free up some restrictions,” Witty said. “It’s going to be a challenge to fine-tune.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA