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State guidance allows local schools to prepare for fall

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WWPS district office

Local schools are making preparations to reopen this fall now that education leaders in both Washington and Oregon have released guidelines on what that will look like.

Washington’s guidelines were released Thursday, one day after Oregon’s, with safety procedures aplenty.

A return to schools will mean staff members perform temperature checks, enforce social distancing and provide education to students, families and staff about staying away from school when sick.

Face coverings are also required for all students, staff and visitors, according to the guidelines announced by Chris Reykdal, Washington’s superintendent of public instruction.

“That will be, of course, challenging especially for the younger grades,” Walla Walla Public Schools Superintendent Wade Smith said. “We need to make sure we teach the younger kids how to safely wear them and safely put them on. That’s going to be a teaching and learning moment for us to say the least.”

Social distancing guidelines will require desks to be at least six feet apart. Smith said this could lead to some classes being held outside. Lunch may be eaten in shifts or in classrooms to limit the number of students all in the same room.

Smith also said some of the focus will be keeping staff safe as well.

“We are working closely with both of our unions to do what we can to keep our staff safe during this time,” Smith said. “Our staff are most prone to being at risk to COVID-19 … We have many adults who are nearing or even at that potentially high-risk category, that 65-plus category.

Despite the work ahead Smith was pleased with the vision to return to class.

“I think this is uplifting news in a time that has been very difficult for many students and families and staff members,” Smith said. “I think this is a ray of hope in a very dark time and I hope we are able to see that through come Sept. 7 when we are scheduled to reopen with students.”

Reykdal emphasized the expectation to return for in-person instruction will be guided by health conditions in each county or region with the presumption of a fall opening.

Reykdal’s guidelines fit into Gov. Jay Inslee’s four-phased program to reopen the state and include some phase-specific safety procedures. Schools are also required to work with their local health authorities.

Should a full opening not be possible, Reykdal’s guidance asks schools to do what they can to provide as much in-person instruction as possible. To that end, Smith says strategies — such as split-shifting students during the day, or having students in person every other day in two blocks — are being considered.

Washington schools have until two weeks before the start of school to provide Reykdal’s office with a plan for the 2020-21 school year, including what the district plans to do should a full opening not be possible.

The guidelines in their entirety can be found on the OSPI website.

Oregon guidelines allow flexibility

The Oregon Department of Education released its own guidelines Wednesday for the reopening of schools.

Like Washington’s, Oregon’s plan involves individual districts making a lot of their own decisions.

“This model, developed under Gov. Brown’s leadership, provides statewide guidance that each school district will use independently to plan for the education and safety of students during the 2020-21 school year,” Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill said in a statement.

The plan includes three paths schools can take: returning to in-classroom instruction with many new safety procedures, exclusively offering distance learning or a combination of the two.

Milton-Freewater Superintendent Aaron Duff said the guidelines recognize there is no one-size-fits-all solution to opening schools.

“The big takeaway I have is it’s going to be school- and county-specific,” Duff said. “They are going to follow county health departments. We are going to be working hand-in-hand. That’s good. That’s important … I see it more as guidance and less as mandates.”

While parts of the document is similar to Washington’s, there are several differences. For example, while adults who regularly come within 6 feet of students will have to wear face masks or transparent shields, students are encouraged but not required to wear face coverings.

Duff did say the preferred option of the state is for schools to try to open if possible. He says he hopes schools in Milton-Freewater will be able to do that. If they can’t, he says, the focus will be on improving distance learning from the spring.

“That’s what education is all about: ‘How can you get better?’” Duff said. “No matter how we start in the fall, it will be an improvement. But I do believe students will be back in the classroom.”

The district offered online learning to any student who had the technology to access it during the spring. It also made many Chromebooks available to students. For students without wifi, paper instruction was also offered. Duff said the district saw a large gap in results between students working online and those working on paper.

Should distance learning again be needed, Duff said the district is working to make it possible for more students to be able to do their work online. One project to that end is installing some Wi-Fi hotspots in the city so students can do some work on their Chromebook while parked in a parking lot.

Oregon schools have until Aug. 15 to submit a blueprint to the state detailing how they plan on conforming to the new guidelines. The full guideline can be found on Oregon Department of Education’s website.

Duff said district staff members are doing everything they can to support students getting back to school soon. He also said he thinks there are some things parents can do to help their children stay in a positive frame of mind.

“One thing that’s important for parents and all of us to remember is to stay positive with our children,” Duff said. “Talk about things that are positive each day in their lives, and positive things to look forward to in the future of their lives. We sometimes forget that sometimes kids feed off of us.”

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Jeremy Burnham can be reached at 509-551-8896 or jeremyburnham@wwub.com.

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Jeremy Burnham covers education and Columbia County for the Union-Bulletin. He is a recent graduate of Eastern Washington University, where he studied journalism, and is an Eastern Eagle fanatic.