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

Elementary students in Salem are expected to have in-person classes five hours per day, two days per week when local schools begin reopening March 2.

Salem-Keizer School District administrators gave more detail about plans for thousands of kids to return to physical classrooms for the first time in nearly a year during a school board meeting Tuesday.

They explained the health protocols schools will follow and how classes will be staggered to accommodate reduced classroom and school bus capacity.

Under the plan, the district’s elementary schools will be split, with about half holding classes from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., and the other half from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. The split is designed to allow bus drivers to run routes for multiple schools while following state rules which require fewer students on buses.

Schedules for each elementary school are posted on the district website, and district leaders are asking families to fill out a form if they need bus transportation to get their students to school.

All school heating and ventilation systems have been set to maximize outdoor airflow, and ventilation rates have been increased to refresh air three or four times per hour, chief operations officer Mike Wolfe told the board.

That’s because the coronavirus spreads most effectively in crowded, poorly ventilated indoor spaces, according to health authorities.

Some areas in schools will also get HEPA filters, including self-contained special education classrooms, Wolfe said.

Schools will follow other state rules designed to limit the spread of Covid in schools, including screening students and staff for recent exposure, requiring masks and limiting the number of people in one room.

That means students will likely eat meals in their classrooms with classmates, and playground use will be staggered so students from different groups don’t mix.

“Common areas won’t be areas that you can be common in any more,” Wolfe said. “Things are going to look significantly different.”

Under the schedule, Mondays will remain a day where district educators work with students in small groups based on student needs, which could include special education help or extra reading practice for students behind. That will remain online.

Elementary students have been assigned to a group that will attend in-person school either Tuesdays and Thursdays or Wednesdays and Fridays.

When students are at school, they’ll have class with their teacher, working on reading, math and attending recess, assistant superintendent Kraig Sproles told the board.

When students are attending school online at home, they’ll have some live classes with gym and music teachers and school counselors. But they’ll also work on assignments given by the teacher the day before in class, he said.

Parents who want their student to remain online should contact their school principal, Sproles said. If a family doesn’t want to return to in-person school after discussing options with school administrators, he said parents can fill out a form.

Their child would then be assigned to a separate all-online class, either through Salem-Keizer’s all-online program, EDGE, or with another teacher at their school. Sproles said families who opt out of in-person classes entirely likely won’t be able to remain with the same teacher.

Though district administrators and some parents and educators have celebrated the chance to get more students back into school buildings, several people who spoke during the board’s meeting said they opposed returning students to buildings before widespread community vaccination.

Educators in Oregon have been eligible to receive a Covid vaccine since late January, but callers said they were concerned about students contracting Covid and spreading it to vulnerable family members at home.

“Educators being vaccinated will not stop the virus from impacting parents, students and the wider community,” said Sandra Hernández-Lomelí, director of Latinos Unidos Siempre, a youth social justice organization, which urged supporters to call in and oppose the return to classrooms. She said reopening schools puts people of color, who have contracted Covid at much higher rates than their white counterparts, at increased risk.

Isaiah Swan, a school instructional assistant, said he’s concerned health protocols won’t be strictly followed, particularly once schools are full of younger kids. He said he's concerned about the virus spreading to students' family members at home.

“We’re going to be rolling the dice with people’s lives every time kids come into our schools,” he said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said schools can reopen safely by following health guidelines like requiring masks, and that spread of Covid inside schools taking safety precautions has been rare.

In Salem-Keizer, several schools have recorded Covid cases during the limited in-person classes district schools have been offering since mid-fall, but no school has seen a large outbreak. Sproles previously told Salem Reporter that cases recorded in local schools occurred when people caught Covid in the community before coming school. The district hasn’t seen evidence of the virus spreading among people inside school buildings.

District leaders said they hope to return more middle and high school students to regular in-person classes in fourth quarter, which begins April 13, but do not yet have detailed plans for doing so.

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

WE GET SALEM THE FACTS. Covering your community with care and depth. Salem Reporter - fair, accurate, independent. Subscribe and support our essential local service.