This spring, many Oregon students and school staff are returning to school buildings after a year of remote and distance learning. This return brings excitement and “first-day” jitters and pictures for many but also comes with concern about safety. Oregon educators want schools to be safe for families, students, and all school staff.
“Ready Schools, Safe Learners” (RSSL) from the Oregon Department of Education outlines the many requirements and recommendations for schools to be healthy and safe. We’ve learned during this global pandemic that all activities come with some risk. However, schools can greatly minimize the risk of spreading COVID-19 by following “Ready Schools, Safe Learners," teaching students how to be safe at school, and working collaboratively to address safety concerns.
RSSL contains more than 160 requirements and has been updated several times in the 2020-21 school year as we learn more about how the virus spreads, what safety measures work best, and learn from the experiences of schools that expanded in-person instruction early. In this article, we will outline the top safety recommendations that when layered together, do the most to prevent the spread of COVID-19. There are many more resources available through ODE, the CDC, and both NEA and OEA. We encourage members to explore those resources. You can also reach out to OEA with questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All school staff and all students in kindergarten and up must wear a face covering at school at all times. This requirement extends for all outdoor activities like recess or learning outside. A face covering is a cloth, polypropylene, paper or other face covering that covers the nose and mouth. Students and staff can bring and wear their own coverings from home, and the school must also provide face coverings for students and staff who need or request one.
Face shields are not preferred but can be worn in conjunction with a mask. Additionally, some staff might only wear a face shield for a short period of time for specific kinds of instruction such as language instruction or one-on-one and group work led by speech language pathologists.
Students can also remove face coverings during mealtimes but schools should add additional safety measures during these times such as increasing the physical distance between students, moving mealtimes outdoors when possible, and ensuring good hand hygiene before and after meals.
A very limited number of students will need accommodations based on a disability. ODE has provided supplemental guidance on this issue. Most students will successfully be able to wear face coverings.
Schools can require that students who refuse to wear a face covering receive instruction though Comprehensive Distance Learning when that decision is values-based.
Hand Washing and Hygiene
In addition to face coverings, hand hygiene is a crucial layer of protection to reduce transmission. Students and school staff should regularly wash their hands or use hand sanitizer. Hand washing with soap and water should last for 20 seconds, or about as long as it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice. An alcohol-based hand sanitizer with 60-95% alcohol is also acceptable. School districts must provide access to hand-washing stations with soap and/or hand sanitizer throughout the building.
Hand hygiene should occur often but specifically at these points:
- When entering the school building at the start of the day
- Before and after meal breaks
- After using the restroom
- After recess
- Before using a shared resource like school supplies or books
Maintaining physical distance from others is another key safety measure. Recently, the CDC changed guidance for schools to allow for three feet of distance between students, though six feet is still recommended as the highest level of safety. However, adults must still maintain six feet of distance from students and from one another.
Planning for physical distancing can present a challenge in schools especially when classrooms were designed for much closer contact and when we know strategies like small groups and partner work can improve instruction. School staff should work with their union leaders and school administrators to plan for physical distancing. Some local unions have negotiated for specific physical distancing requirements.
Classrooms can only accommodate as many students as can fit while maintaining the appropriate physical distance from each other, while maintaining space for school staff, and leaving room to maneuver safely in the classroom. This often means classrooms have reduced capacity.
There are a lot of times in a typical school day that present challenges to maintaining physical distance like passing times, the beginning and end of the school day, and any time students stand in line. Some ideas to maintain distance during these times include:
- Creating one-way traffic signs and reminders in hallways
- Using markings on the floor for students to stand on when they might wait in line, similar to what you might see at your local grocery store
- Staggering passing times to reduce the number of students in school hallways at any time
Entry screening is not required by the CDC but can provide an important check in with students each day and sets the tone as students enter the building reminding students that even though they have returned to school, we haven’t returned to “normal” yet.
In Oregon, elementary school students must be screened each day as they enter the building. Many schools have developed a short set of questions they ask students each day, like “How is your head?” or “Do you have a cough today?” Screening does not include checking student temperatures and school staff should continue to informally monitor students throughout the day to look for new symptoms. At middle and high school, students can “self-screen” at home but again, school staff should keep their eyes out for any developing symptoms.
Isolation and Quarantine
If a staff member or student does develop symptoms of COVID-19 during the school day, they should immediately go to the designated isolation area. Each school must identify an isolation area away from other students until they are able to go home.
RSSL includes information for a variety of infection or possible infection scenarios that detail how long a staff member or student must quarantine and what conditions must be met before they return to school. This resource also includes communication templates and outlines who needs to be contacted in the event of an exposure to COVID-19.
An exposure is defined as an individual who has close contact (less than 6 feet) for longer than 15 cumulative minutes in a day with a person who has COVID-19. School districts as employers are required to notify staff when they have a close contact. You may also work in a building where there is a confirmed case, but you might not have had a close contact with that person. In those cases, you should be notified that there is a case in your school but that you are not affected.
All school staff in Oregon are eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. OEA encourages all members to take advantage of this eligibility. To learn more about where to find the vaccine, visit https://covidvaccine.oregon.gov.
Preventing the spread of COVID-19 requires many layers of safety. No one safety measure will work on its own. By combining safety measures, we can all do our part to minimize the risk in schools. OEA members can also educate themselves about Oregon’s safety requirements and recommendations. This knowledge helps OEA member be better advocates for students, families, and all school staff.