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All students from kindergarten up will need to wear masks in school

New requirements from the Oregon Department of Education, including face coverings for all students attending in-person classes, mark another step in local school districts’ planning process, but those who have released tentative plans aren’t yet anticipating drastic changes.

“We all really anticipated that was going to be coming,“ said Bret Champion, superintendent of the Medford School District. “But we were also hoping for these guidelines ... that will trigger whether you’re opened or closed.”

The ODE guidance, which details the latest updates to its “Ready Schools, Safe Learners” document, drew attention mainly for its new requirement that students in grades kindergarten and above will need to wear face coverings whenever they attend school in person next school year. It also offered new details about the allowable sizes of “cohorts” of students and staff — a tactic to reduce the number of people each person comes in direct contact with.

While the guidance from education officials hinted at forthcoming information on the metrics that local public health agencies will use to determine whether individual schools can reopen, Wednesday’s updates contained few specifics on what those will include.

“We say, ‘Come on, state, get us that guidance as quickly as you can,’” Champion said. “Because if there is something that’s going to trigger us not being open, we need to know that sooner rather than later, because we are spending a lot of time working on our current framework.”

The new mask requirement for young students, announced in conjunction with an identical statewide order by Gov. Kate Brown that will go into effect Friday, received differing reactions from educators, parents and community members.

To those who assess their risks from the virus as low, the masks seem to be overkill. To teachers and parents who more heavily weigh the risks wrapped in with a return to the classroom, the new order offers some reassurance. Still others say the additional measures won’t be enough to protect students and staff.

Many members of the Facebook group “Oregon for a Safe Return to School,” for example, expressed disappointment. The nearly 10,000-strong community, which includes school staff and concerned family and community members, is continuing with plans to advocate for 14 days with no new cases in a county as the standard to reopen a school campus.

Both those in favor of and opposed to a return to the classroom, however, often agree on the potential pitfalls of requiring young students to wear masks.

“I recognize that masks are effective,” said Samantha Steele, superintendent of District 6. “And I also know that the reality of required masks for our youngest students will be a huge challenge.”

Laurie Rooper, human resources director for the Ashland School District, said district leaders will need to assess how the new requirements, especially guidelines restricting the size of student cohorts, will impact the districts’ path forward as it weighs three options to return.

“It may impact some of our on-site class ideas,” she said.

Ashland is favoring a hybrid model that can bring as many students back to campus as possible for at least some time each week. The decision to prioritize in-person instruction is partially based in a survey of Ashland families from earlier this month, Rooper said.

Eighty-three percent of respondents, who represented more than 75% of all district families, indicated they wanted their students to get back in the classroom to some extent, Rooper said.

Locally, Medford had put forth the most detailed outline of plans for the fall before the latest guidance was released from ODE. That included an intention to bring elementary students back into schools full-time, with middle and high school students attending in a hybrid manner.

Medford hadn’t originally required face coverings for students at the elementary level, a decision that had sparked concern from some parents and teachers at the time. Now, Champion said, the district will need to find ways to make face coverings work for students in socially distanced classrooms.

“There is concern in terms of, 5-year-olds are 5 years old,” Champion said. “And so they are going to struggle with either a face shield or a face mask.”

The cost of PPE for all students and staff for the next school year will be around $87,316, the district has estimated.

As they await ODE’s next round of guidance, scheduled to be released Aug. 11, Medford employees are working to shore up the online-only option for students K-12 who opt to learn only from a distance this year.

Medford teachers specifically working in online instruction will lead the students who participate in the program. Families can sign up now at the district website.

“I just want parents to know that it’s available and, quite frankly, it helps us with understanding what numbers we need to plan for as people go ahead and sign up now,” Champion said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

Jamie Cruise, a custodian at Central Medford High School, disinfects s classroom in March. Mail Tribune / File Photo