The Class of 2020 left high school under unique circumstances with “socially distant” graduations this month, but for their younger peers, the effects of COVID-19 on their education continue.

The Oregon Department of Education released guidelines on June 10 for schools to be able to reopen their doors in the fall, directing school districts to use the framework to put together their own plans.

“It’s a lot,” Hermiston School District Superintendent Tricia Mooney said of the 47-page document on the day it was released. “There’s a lot to digest, and with it released today, at the district level we need to put together a team to look at that and put a plan together.”

She said the district plans to start school on Aug. 24, and getting the official word from the state on what needs to happen “puts us one step closer to having kids back in the buildings.”

The state’s report sets broad standards — students’ desks must be 6 feet apart with 35 square feet of space per person in the room, students must be kept together with the same “cohort” as much as possible, and staff coming within 6 feet of students must be masked. But each district must come up with their own plan for how that is accomplished.

Some districts may be able to leverage gyms, lunch rooms and other large spaces to accommodate all students under the 6-foot rule, for example, while others may need to rotate half the students into the building at a time while the other half participate in online schooling for the day. Districts will also need to make sure students aren’t mixing with other cohorts in restrooms, hallways, playgrounds and other shared spaces.

On a phone call with Oregon journalists, Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill said if school districts do have a hybrid program of online and in-person learning next year, the distance learning will be held to “higher level of expectation” than they have been in the spring, including actual interaction with teachers on those days they’re not physically in the classroom.

“With this level of local flexibility, there is an equal level of local responsibility,” he said.

He said in the event of an outbreak at a school, districts must be prepared to temporarily switch an entire building or classroom to distance learning while everyone who may have been exposed is quarantined at home.

Hermiston voters passed a bond in 2019 to add on to Hermiston High School, replace Rocky Heights Elementary School with a larger school and add a sixth elementary school to the district. During the campaign, the district’s website stated the Facilities Planning Committee estimated that the high school and elementary schools would “exceed capacity” by the 2020-21 school year. Those projects are currently in the design phase, but won’t be built in time for the upcoming school year.

Mooney said last week that Hermiston has been able to keep its class sizes “manageable,” however, which will help in following the state’s guidelines in the fall.

In addition to tackling the problem of sufficient physical distancing for each student and teacher, districts will also be challenged by the requirement to keep students together in a single group, or cohort, all day to try and limit the exposure that would happen if a student were to come to school carrying COVID-19.

Mooney said at the elementary school that is easier to accomplish, as students mostly stay together in one group all day anyway, but high school and middle school students usually mix with different students in different classes.

“There will be different needs for different levels, for sure,” she said.

Mooney said the district will also follow hygiene standards set by the state, including rigorous hand washing and sanitizing protocols and not allowing students or staff to be at school if they are displaying symptoms of COVID-19. The school district is adding two new school nurses to the two it already has on staff, and will make whatever additional accommodations are needed for students with medical conditions that put them at higher risk of complications from COVID-19.

“Students’ safety, security and health, all of that has always been at the forefront for us,” she said.

At Umatilla School District, Superintendent Heidi Sipe created a slideshow and video showing a first draft of the district’s plan for fall, and asked parents and students to give feedback on the plan through a survey sent out to parents and available on the district’s Facebook page.

In the video, Sipe said the district plans to present a mixture of online and on-site opportunities for students. Students can choose to attend school online only for their health, while students who wish to attend in person will be kept in a “cohort” with the same students and teacher all day on Monday through Thursday. On Fridays, students who need help catching up will meet with their teacher in person while students who are passing their classes will be learning online.

In elementary school, the students’ main teacher will handle PE, music and other special classes in their own classrooms. In the secondary grade levels, students will be kept in one “homeroom” classroom all day with their cohort for an entire quarter, with that classroom’s teacher handling some subjects in person while students will watch a livestream of other teachers’ lectures for other subjects.

“It’s important to recognize this is our draft plan,” Sipe said. “That means it’s not final yet. These are our first ideas into the guidance that was released so that we can have school in the fall.”

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