Highland Elementary 2nd grade teacher Becky Montgomery works with a student during a computer math exercise Wednesday March 13, 2019. (Fred Joe/Special to Salem Reporter)

Most of Salem-Keizer’s 41,000 students would attend school inside a building only two days per week under a plan being developed by district administrators, though younger students would have more in-class time.

Families will have the option to keep their students enrolled in an all-online district program regardless of grade, a choice thousands of parents said they’re considering based on a district survey.

Assistant superintendent Kraig Sproles presented an early outline for the fall at a July 7 school board meeting that aims to balance state health guidelines around physical distance with the academic needs of students, many of whom struggled with a switch to all-online classes in the spring.

The planning comes as President Donald Trump this week pressured school districts across the U.S. to reopen fully in the fall, saying guidelines developed by his administration’s Centers for Disease Control & Prevention were too expensive and required schools “to do very impractical things.”

Sproles said the district’s goal is to keep students and employees healthy while recognizing many kids learn better face-to-face and with the social outlet school provides.

“We have to balance those things. An extreme reaction on one side has implications on the other and vice versa,” Sproles told the board.

Oregon’s 55-page document guiding school reopening, developed by the education department and Oregon Health Authority, lists dozens of rules districts must follow to hold classes in person. Those include a minimum number of square feet in each classroom for each student, meaning most Salem-Keizer schools can have no more than half their students in the building at one time.

“That restriction has been keeping us up at night trying to maximize space,” Sproles said.

Under the district outline, kindergarten, first and second-grade students would attend schools Monday through Thursday, with online instruction Fridays.

Sproles said it’s especially difficult to teach young kids online, and the first years of school, when students learn how to read, are most crucial for ongoing academic success.

Older students, from third grade through high school, would attend school either Mondays and Wednesdays or Tuesdays and Thursdays, with online instruction on days they’re not in class.

Sproles said those plans are general, but students with disabilities, those learning English or others who need more individual and one-on-one help could be in school more frequently.

Middle and high school students will work on a quarter system, taking only four or five classes at a time with longer periods of instruction, rather than seven or eight. Sproles said that reflects feedback from students that staying on top of so many courses online was challenging. It will also make it easier for schools to keep students separated into groups that don’t mix during the day.

An online academy will be available for any student or parent who doesn’t want to return to in-person school in the fall, with registration opening in August.

A district survey of 6,000 families representing 8,000 students found 6% wanted to sign up for all-online courses, 6% were “highly interested” and another 20% said they would consider it.

In an interview, Sproles said some families prefer online either because of the health risks of Covid or because students found they learned better at home. But most, he said, indicated they wanted school to be stable throughout the year rather than a shifting plan for in-person schooling that could easily be disrupted by an outbreak of the virus.

“The only one of our models that will for sure stay the same is online,” Sproles said.

Nearly all details for fall classes remain to be worked out, and questions from school board directors Tuesday hinted at the creativity and flexibility schools will need. Directors inquired whether some elementary school classes might meet in middle or high schools, where there’s more space available (it’s a possibility), or whether students might attend some classes outside their neighborhood school (less likely).

And changes in response to state and local trends in coronavirus infections or outbreaks at schools are almost certain, Sproles said.

“The plan that we start with September 9 will probably not be the same plan we have in November,” he told the board.

Salem-Keizer administrators are holding weekly briefings for the school board through July as they flesh out specifics and will hold a public hearing August 11 on a final plan.

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