A student follows one-way arrows to get to her desk at Richmond Elementary on Tuesday, March 2. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

The Oregon Department of Education on Monday said schools can seat students closer together in classrooms - a change that paves the way for resuming full-time in-person classes.

But the Salem-Keizer School District isn't planning any changes yet, district spokeswoman Sylvia McDaniel said.

Under updated state rules, elementary school students must be at least three feet apart from one another while at school. Middle and high school students may also be three feet apart from each other in counties where Covid spread is lower, defined as fewer than 200 new cases per 100,000 county residents over two weeks. Marion and Polk counties are both under that target.

Previously, the state required six feet of distance and at least 35 square feet of classroom space per student. Those rules made it effectively impossible to bring an entire class of students back into school buildings at the same time.

Six feet of distance would still be required between students from different classrooms, such as when students pass in the hall.

The state change comes on the heels of new guidance from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, released last week, which said schools can prevent the spread of Covid even with less space between students so long as other measures like mask-wearing are in place.

Oregon's school operating guidelines require students and employees to wear masks except when eating or drinking.

Salem-Keizer schools gradually resumed in-person elementary classes over the past three weeks, with students attending schools two days and learning online the other three.

About 14,000 elementary students are attending in-person classes across the district. Between those classes resuming on March 2 and March 18, elementary schools had identified one Covid case in a student who was on campus, district spokesman Aaron Harada said.

The district has not had to send any groups of elementary school students home to quarantine because of Covid exposure, he said.

Middle and high school students are scheduled to resume in mid-April with in-person classes two days per week. The last day of school is scheduled for June 17.

The district is on spring break this week. McDaniel said district leaders haven't yet discussed changing the distancing rule, but said resuming five days per week of in-person classes is unlikely before the fall.

"Because we have already designed our hybrid model which accommodates all students coming back, the 3 foot rule wouldn't impact us at this time," she said in an email.

In announcing the change, state leaders emphasized local control and signaled they wouldn’t force school districts to adopt the revised guidelines immediately.

“As with so many aspects of our lives this year, schools will not be able to return to normal overnight, as districts will need time to work with parents, educators, and staff to create plans at the local level to implement this updated guidance," Gov. Kate Brown said in a statement. "But, as we continue to vaccinate more Oregonians every day and work together to drive down COVID-19 transmission in our communities, students and staff will have expanded opportunities and flexibility for in-person learning under this new guidance, as we work towards fully reopening all our schools in the fall."

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

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