Schools to develop own blueprint for fall return; Helt calls ODE plan ‘unrealistic’



Staggered schedules, drastically modified classroom seating and screening kids at bus stops and before entering buildings are just some of the requirements laid out Wednesday by the Oregon Department of Education in order to safely return students to schools this fall.

Under the ODE’s “Ready Schools, Safe Learners” guidelines, every school in Central Oregon will have the flexibility to develop its own blueprint to meet the needs of their students.

“Our focus is on the safe reentry of staff and students to our schools,” said ODE Director Colt Gill in a joint announcement with Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen. “The 2020-21 school year requires a level of planning, iteration, communication, and collaboration like none that we’ve known or led during our years of service in Oregon.”

The 46-page document provides a checklist for schools, including guidelines on masks (not required for students), desks (minimum 6-feet apart) and lunches (likely served in classrooms.) It addresses guidelines for recess, bus rides (kids sitting 3-feet apart) and visitors (masks required.)

Schools must adhere to strict sanitizing regiments for not only students and staff, but also educational materials like books and pencils.

Also, it calls for schools to “cancel, modify, or postpone field trips, assemblies, athletic events, practices, special performances, school-wide parent meetings and other large gatherings to meet requirements for physical distancing.”

The future of fall sports remains unclear, though, as Gov. Kate Brown and the OHA work out guidelines specific to athletics.

“Schools do not have the physical space, monetary resources, or insurance coverage to bring back students in the fall under these guidelines.” – Rep. Cheri Helt (R-Bend)

“The fact is, physical distancing and hygiene are the best tools we have to prevent the spread and every prevention tool we remove increases the opportunity for transmission of the disease,” Gill and Allen said. “However, we have time to ready our schools to provide in-person instruction in ways that employ the prevention tools we know work. We can hold school in-person and protect our children, our staff, and the families they return home to each day.”

Every school’s blueprint could be different and it’s up to each one, at the direction of the district, to decide whether they’re going to teach all students on-site, teach all kids via distance learning, or provide a hybrid model utilizing both methods, according to the guidelines.

The rules will require schools to be thorough with their cleanliness, strict with their social distancing and nimble with just about every aspect of daily classroom life that could stretch from the gym to the library – using every square inch in between.

Blueprints must be presented to the school board for review by August 15th.

Bend Rep. Cheri Helt, a 10-year member of the Bend-La Pine school board, said the guidelines were too excessive.

“Schools do not have the physical space, monetary resources, or insurance coverage to bring back students in the fall under these guidelines,” she said. “Failure to open is unacceptable and unfair to all our kids and families. We cannot sacrifice two years of learning to fear and a lack of creativity.”

Gill agreed the recommendations would be difficult and “a real challenge for our school districts,” but said they weren’t out of line with what several other states are recommending and consistent with what the CDC has suggested.

“They’ll just be hard for our educators and families to get used to,” he said. “But at the same time, we’re bringing together for the first time a half million people…We think it’s the safest way.”

According to the ODE, each blueprint must address eight elements including Public Health Protocols, Equity, Instruction, and Family and Community Engagement.

Operational Blueprint

State leaders are providing the data-based requirements, but officials say the guidelines put the decision-making process into the hands of educators, school nurses, counselors, principals and others in tune with each school’s context.

“This collaboration ensures school doors are open and ready to welcome students in the fall,” Gill and Allen said. “The guidance describes what we know now, with an understanding that we will all need to navigate the state’s evolving efforts to mitigate COVID-19.”

Gov. Kate Brown initially closed Oregon schools for two weeks on March 12th, in the early stage of the outbreak’s reach into Oregon. But just five days later, she extended the closure to April 28th as President Trump laid out new social distancing guidelines for all Americans.

Brown then announced on May 8th that schools would remain closed through the academic year, putting the online learning component into overdrive while raising concerns about the possibility of returning in the fall.

Many counties across Oregon have been approved to enter Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan, but health officials have said it will be some time before things truly return to normal.

Large gatherings likely won’t be approved for months and the social distancing restrictions still in place will require schools and districts to get creative in planning for next year.

Earlier this week, Crook County Schools Superintendent Dr. Sara Johnson told board members she planned to open schools on time in September, but presented a number of contingency plans if things change.

“The old education model is changing and we need to proactively come up with different ways of serving families,” she said. “We’re developing a menu of options next year for students who may not thrive well in the traditional school setting.”

This is a developing story. We’re working to get reaction from local school leaders about the guidelines for our newscasts at 5, 6 and 7 p.m.

You can read the ODE guidelines below:

Ready Schools Safe Learners 2020-21 Guidance

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