Highland Elementary School students enter the school library for brief in-person classes on Oct. 20, 2020 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Thousands of kindergarten and first-grade students could be back in Salem classrooms by late February as local schools move forward with Gov. Kate Brown’s loosened in-person instruction rules.

But a firm date for students’ return will hinge on a new set of state guidelines expected next week. The Salem-Keizer School District has yet to set a timeframe for returning middle and high school students to classrooms.

District leaders explained their plans to the Salem-Keizer School Board during its Tuesday, Jan. 12 meeting. They said their priority is to get younger students back in the classroom first because of the difficulties teaching reading online.

“If you can’t read and you don’t have someone to sit next to you to help you navigate a computer, it’s hard to learn to read on the computer,” said Kraig Sproles, assistant superintendent.

Following the meeting, Sproles told Salem Reporter that district leaders hope to begin in-person classes for kindergarten and first graders during the third or fourth week of February, then gradually add older elementary school students. He said the hope is to have kindergarten through fifth grade students back in classrooms by mid-March.

Those classes, however, won’t look like school did before the pandemic. Students would be split into smaller groups, attending class in-person two days per week and spending the rest of the week online at home.

That’s in order to meet state rules requiring physical distance between students in classrooms, Sproles said. Keeping students in small groups also means fewer students and employees are sent home if one person gets sick with Covid.

“If you have a few people who test positive you don’t have to shut down an entire school,” he told the school board.

Schools will still have to follow a host of state-mandated safety guidelines, including requiring masks and regularly sanitizing classrooms.

Most of Oregon’s schools have been operating online since March, when Brown ordered them to close. Over the summer, Brown took a top-down approach. She issued statewide rules directing schools, in most cases, to operate entirely online if Covid cases in the surrounding county were too prevalent. That effectively forbid in-person classes for students in most of the state’s largest districts, including Salem-Keizer.

When Brown shifted more local control to schools on Dec. 23, she also called for districts to get as many students back into classrooms by Feb. 15, particularly for elementary school.

Currently, state guidelines recommend school stays online in counties that have recorded more than 200 new Covid cases per 100,000 residents in a two-week period. Marion County most recently recorded 572 cases per 100,000 residents in the two weeks ending Jan. 9 — nearly three times that level.

But districts no longer have to follow those targets, and the targets may be further loosened in the state guidance that’s expected to be released next week.

Sproles said gradually returning to in-person classes will allow the district to ensure its safety protocols are working. He said the school’s prior experience with limited in-person classes has shown schools can keep students and employees healthy even when Covid rates in the community are high.

Local schools have reported some Covid cases among employees or students to public health authorities. But Sproles said none have resulted in the virus spreading among people at school. Contact tracing involving schools has typically found people who contracted Covid elsewhere, he said. When a group of students tests positive for Covid, he said health workers often find the group was spending time together outside of school at social events.

“Most of the cases that we’ve had in schools started in the community and then were brought into schools,” he said.

Still, teacher unions have pushed for vaccination for school employees before in-person school resumes. Unions representing the state’s five largest districts, including the Salem-Keizer Education Association, sent Brown a letter Jan. 7 urging better access to testing and other safety measures in schools.

“School staff must have access to the vaccine and have time for it to be fully effective before reopening schools for in-person or hybrid instruction,” they said in the letter.

Earlier this week, the governor announced teachers and other school employees would be eligible for a Covid vaccine beginning Jan. 23, when a new federal shipment is expected. Salem-Keizer administrators are discussing plans for vaccinating school employees with local health departments.

Brown said in a news conference last week that prioritizing vaccines for educators would allow more students to get back in the classroom safely.

“The harsh reality is that many of our kids across the state have been out of school for almost a year now, in terms of in classroom learning. It's extremely challenging for a lot of kids, particularly our littles, to be learning how to read or learning how to do math on a computer remotely. We have communities across the state that are not well-connected or not connected to the internet. We have families who, frankly, have struggled to get the resources, whether computers or internet access,” Brown said.

The school board on Tuesday approved an agreement with the Salem-Keizer Education Association, which represents about 2,000 teachers and other licensed district employees. That agreement says the district must give teachers 10 days notice before resuming regular in-person classes and allow teachers one preparation day to transition.

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

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