SALEM, Ore. — The Oregon Department of Education released its updated guidance for classroom spacing on Monday to reflect new recommendations from the CDC issued at the end of last week.
Oregon school districts have been eagerly awaiting the updated plan from education officials, which is necessary for any public school to proceed with the CDC's change from six feet to three feet of required space for each student. The spacing change is expected to allow many schools to abandon hybrid learning in favor of full-time instruction on campus.
“This shift will take time to digest, partner with staff, and integrate in many schools and districts. I know our educators have spent countless hours over the last year stretching to implement different learning models and safety protocols. It is my hope you maintain your spring break as a short time for renewal and come together after the break to plan together on how best to incorporate these changes,” said ODE Director Colt Gill.
However, ODE's new plan is not without caveats. Elementary schools will be able to make the shift to three feet of spacing "to the maximum extent possible" without equivocation, but classrooms in middle and high school will be beholden to county case rates. This requirement largely aligns with the CDC's update, which called for more spacing in upper grades when counties are seeing higher rates of spread.
For both middle and high schools, the reduction to three feet of physical distance is allowed when the county case rate is below 200 per 100,000 people. If the county case rate is 200 or more per 100,000 people, six feet of distancing will be required.
The updated guidance also requires that schools maintain six feet between staff at all times, and six feet between staff and students "to the maximum extent possible."
A previous requirement that each student have 35 square-feet of space around them in the classroom has been removed in the new guidance, something that multiple southern Oregon superintendents said would be key to returning with full-time learning.
“With the new recommendations for physical distancing from the CDC, I know I join students, parents, and educators across Oregon in welcoming the news that months of scientific research clearly demonstrates the risk of COVID-19 transmission is low in schools,” said Governor Kate Brown. “As with so many aspects of our lives this year, schools will not be able to return to normal overnight, as districts will need time to work with parents, educators, and staff to create plans at the local level to implement this updated guidance."
In a brief preliminary statement, the Medford School District said that it would be able to begin implementing the reduced spacing at elementary schools, but Jackson County's case rates would not allow for the same to occur at middle and high schools for the time being.
For schools that are cleared to begin the transition to reduced spacing, ODE underlined that the decision will be handled locally. School administrators will be charged with making the decision, and can choose to maintain six feet of spacing under many conditions.
ODE said that it may several weeks for schools to make the transition and adjust to new requirements.
“Given this new and important progression in the science and standards, as set by the CDC, for schools during COVID-19; some schools and districts may wish to consider new models for Hybrid and new opportunities for fully On-Site instructional models," Gill said. "I strongly encourage school districts and schools to take the time they need to collaborate across school administrators, teachers and staff to convene school planning teams to review the new requirements and recommendations and to consider updating your school’s Operational Blueprint to reflect any changes you will make under the new guidance.”