What to expect when Salem kids head back to school

Nyjah Angeles raises a hand during the first day back to school at Richmond Elementary on Tuesday, March 2. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Salem and Oregon education officials said the recent spike in new Covid infections and hospitalizations haven’t changed plans to hold school in-person, five days per week in the fall.

But for the roughly 40,000 students in the Salem-Keizer School District, the start of school will mean face masks once again – something district leaders said they’d hoped to avoid when new Covid infections were falling in late spring and early summer.

Still, Superintendent Christy Perry urged families to focus on supporting students as they return rather than arguing about masking rules.

“We are looking forward and going full court press to get kids back in schools five days a week and keep them in school. That has to be our highest calling,” Superintendent Christy Perry said during an Aug. 10 school board meeting, following over an hour of contentious public testimony which largely focused on the statewide mask rule.

District officials are holding informational nights for families starting Aug. 19 about the return to school in a variety of languages. A full schedule is available on the district website.

Here’s an overview of what we know about school in the fall. Classes for Salem students begin Sept. 7 for sixth and ninth graders, Sept. 8 for other students and Sept. 15 for kindergarteners.

Do students have to wear masks?

In almost all cases, yes – students, school employees and visitors will be required to wear masks while indoors at school. Gov. Kate Brown on July 29 said she would require masks in schools in an effort to reduce the spread of Covid.

That decision was not made locally, and schools that don’t enforce the rule could face $500 fines per day, with teachers who refuse to mask potentially facing sanctions on their state license.

Perry indicated the district will follow the rule. “Every move we make is about keeping kids in school, keeping kids in school safely,” she told parents during an Aug. 4 informational session for parents. “Nobody wants to go back to hybrid or comprehensive distance learning.”

The mask rule applies while riding a school bus. It won’t apply to outdoor activities like recess or sports.

While the state rule doesn’t apply to indoor after school activities, the district is requiring masks for all indoor school activities with some exceptions, spokesman Aaron Harada said. Students don’t have to wear a mask when they’re involved in a “vigorous activity” or are performing, such as giving a speech, singing or in a play.

Students who can’t wear a mask because of a disability won’t be excluded from school, said Melissa Glover, the district’s director of student services, during a parent information session on Aug. 4. Parents can contact their child’s school to request disability accommodations.

The Oregon Health Authority will reevaluate the mask rule monthly.

Are Salem teachers or school employees required to get a Covid vaccine?

No, but that could change.

Gov. Kate Brown said she did not plan to issue a rule requiring vaccines for educators during a news conference on Aug. 11. “Local superintendents need to make that decision and that is in their very capable hands,” Brown said. She has mandated state government employees get a Covid vaccine, and said Oregon health care workers need to either show proof of vaccination or be tested weekly.

The National Education Association, the largest teacher union in the U.S., said last week it would support a requirement that educators either be vaccinated or tested regularly for Covid. The Oregon Education Association has yet to make any public statement, and a spokesman did not return a call seeking comment.

Perry told Salem Reporter she’s made no decision about requiring vaccines for the district’s educators. District leaders are considering options, including a regular Covid testing requirement, she said, but any decision would be made in consultation with employee unions.

The district isn’t currently tracking whether employees are vaccinated against Covid or not, she said, in part because it had no method for doing so when vaccines rolled out early in the year. “We’ve never tracked medical information of our employees,” Perry said.

Tyler Scialo-Lakeberg, president of the Salem-Keizer Education Association, said the union doesn’t have a position on vaccination mandates yet because she hasn’t yet gathered feedback from members. 

Union and district leaders are still discussing Covid safety protocols for the fall. “We want to do what we need to do to keep our schools safe,” Scialo-Lakeberg said.

What else is being done to keep Covid from spreading in schools?

Salem schools will leave in place many of the mitigation measures developed last school year. Those include keeping three feet of space between people in schools wherever possible, hand sanitizer stations inside school buildings, more frequent cleaning and disinfecting of buildings, and increasing the outdoor air flow in school buildings to maximum levels so classrooms have fresh air, district officials said.

Unlike last spring, students won’t officially be split into groups that remain separate from one another during the school day, district spokesman Aaron Harada said. 

That strategy was intended to limit the number of people any one student was in contact with over the course of a school day, and minimize the number of students who could be sent home if someone got sick with Covid. It also made scheduling classes difficult for middle and high school students who often take classes like choir or band with classmates from other grades.

But Harada said some of the district’s larger schools will be modifying lunch schedules to keep the number of students in the cafeteria at any one time smaller.

What happens if someone in a school tests positive for Covid?

The district maintains its own cadre of nurses and health workers to track Covid infections within schools. When someone who was inside a school tests positive for Covid, that team works with the person, the school and county public health agencies to determine who else may have been exposed to the virus.

Anyone considered a “close contact” of someone with Covid is notified via phone call from a district nurse and may need to quarantine at home, depending on several other factors. Generally, a close contact means someone who was within six feet of the person with Covid for at least 15 minutes over the course of a day.

The district process for notifying others in a classroom or school of a positive Covid case is still being determined, Harada said. He said the district is seeking to balance keeping families informed without compromising medical privacy for people who do contract Covid.

Will students or teachers need to quarantine if someone in their class gets Covid?

Not necessarily, said Jodi Peterson, the district’s nurse coordinator, during an Aug. 4 session for parents. Public health guidelines generally only recommend quarantine for close contacts, so those in a classroom seated further than six feet away typically wouldn’t be included.

Even if they’re identified as a close contact, people fully vaccinated against Covid are not required to quarantine after an exposure unless they are showing symptoms of illness, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said. Peterson said the district won’t require quarantine for people fully vaccinated against Covid who have no symptoms of illness. 

Also, if both the person with Covid and their close contact stayed at least three feet apart and were both wearing masks correctly, Oregon Department of Education recommendations say the close contact does not need to quarantine. The district will follow that recommendation, Peterson said.

Can students attend school online?

Yes, but spots are filling up quickly. Salem-Keizer is offering its online academy, called EDGE, for K-12 students. The district capped enrollment at 1,924 student spots and currently has 1,819 enrolled, said Sylvia McDaniel, Salem-Keizer’s director of community relations. High school spots are full, she said, with some middle and elementary school slots remaining.

Perry said the cap was needed so the district could assign teachers to schools for the fall. She said enrollment was around 1,600 students for much of the summer but spiked after family Q&A sessions covering the return to school in early August.

Students can apply for a remaining spot online

Is the state planning to require online instruction?

Not currently. Colt Gill, the state schools chief, raised the possibility of online education during a call with district superintendents last week, suggesting they should be prepared to dust off their online school plans.

But that wasn’t signaling a shift away from the state’s focus on in-person school, said Marc Siegel, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Education.

“There is no decision to move online. Director Gill did tell districts that the challenge with the Delta variant is significant and urgent. He urged districts to comply with the statewide masking requirement and to include additional locally determined mitigation efforts like physical distancing and frequent hand washing to their reopening plans. He also stated that every district should be prepared to pivot to provide remote learning if their local COVID-19 experience calls for that measure. And, restated his belief in the ability of schools to hold school in-person with mitigation protocols that will reduce the spread of COVID-19,” Siegel wrote in an email.

How are concerns about Covid affecting school enrollment?

It’s too early to tell, Perry told Salem Reporter.

School districts across Oregon, including Salem-Keizer, saw a substantial enrollment decline last year as many parents pulled kids to homeschool them, sought private schools or in some cases moved to other states where schools were operating in person. Salem-Keizer reported an enrollment drop of about 1,900 students, bringing the district’s enrollment to roughly 40,000.

Kindergarten enrollment in particular plummeted, and education officials have said it’s an open question whether families that skipped online kindergarten will eventually enroll in public school.

Perry said school registration is ongoing and the district will have a better picture by the end of August about whether concerns about Covid cases, frustration over the mask mandate or other factors are leading more families to unenroll their students.

This article was updated to clarify state and district rules for indoor mask wearing during after school activities.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241. 

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.