OKLAHOMA CITY — Noting the upcoming school year will be far different, the state Department of Education Wednesday released a framework of recommendations for Oklahoma school districts planning to reopen amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

The 74-page report called “Return to Learn Oklahoma” contains an extensive list meant to balance learning, safety and the ongoing health needs of students, staff and families, State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister wrote in a letter to district leaders.

After schools statewide were shuttered in March to slow the spread of COVID-19, school systems quickly implemented distance-learning programs. Districts spent the final months of the school year attempting to educate more than 700,000 students virtually.

Now, schools are wrestling with how to safely reopen even as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to increase in parts of the state.

Hofmeister said it is time for districts to figure out how to “return to learn” in a way that fits local needs. The report recommends a “layered approach to COVID-19 mitigation, adopting those policies and practices that are feasible, practical and acceptable within their school community.”

Some recommendations include adopting policies for screening staff, students and visitors prior to entry and temporarily restricting access to those who are ill; spacing desks 6 feet apart; reinforcing the use of facemasks; and staggering the days students are in the building.

The report warns districts to prepare for bus driver shortages that could also force closures.

The Department of Education said transportation may be one of the most difficult challenges for schools. That's because social-distancing practices on buses may not be viable for most districts.

But districts must plan for driver shortages. Many of those employees are in the high-risk category for complications from COVID-19 and may not want to work anymore, the report notes.

“By building in virtual school days to the school calendar or otherwise planning for contingencies, schools can be prepared for possible closure due to a bus driver shortage,” the report said.

District leaders also should consider adopting multiple contingency calendars that address on-site learning, any potential closures or longer-term distance learning. Districts must provide schooling 180 days or 1,080 hours.

Alternative calendars could include starting school early or longer breaks, state leaders said.

Leaders could consider implementing half-day rotations, a mix of in-person and distancing-learning or alternative-week schooling that allows half of students to go one week while the other half attends the other.

Districts should develop plans in case there’s a positive or suspected case in school. There should also be protocols for students or staff who have had "known close contact" with someone who tested positive.

The guidelines said schools also should promote and reinforce the use of cloth masks and face coverings for staff and students.

“Although a face mask offers only limited protection for the individual wearing it, it does help prevent the spread of viral particles from asymptomatic individuals who do not know they have coronavirus,” the report said.

Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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