Washougal School District postpones decision on graduation ceremony

'We will celebrate in a way that seniors have never been celebrated before,' Washougal High principal tells class of 2020

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(Post-Record file photo) Washougal High School class of 2019 graduates attend their June 8, 2019 graduation ceremony.

Washougal School District leaders have not ruled out the possibility of a traditional graduation ceremony for Washougal High School’s class of 2020. 

Shortly after Washington Governor Jay Inslee and Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal announced April 6 that all K-12 schools in the state will be closed for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year due to the spread of COVID-19, the school district announced: “in-person graduation ceremonies will change to virtual ceremonies and/or be delayed.”

But on Friday, April 10, Washougal schools superintendent Mary Templeton told the Post-Record that she has “decided to delay making that decision for a bit and continue to explore opportunities for an in-person ceremony even if it is later in the summer.”

“There are a lot of moving parts, and we don’t have it all worked out yet,” Templeton said, “but we know one thing we recognize that seniors are in a really complex spot, and we’re going to do everything we can to support them. They are being asked to do something that none of us have had to do live out the end of their senior year without experiencing all of the celebrations in the (traditional) way.”

In a YouTube video released April 6, Washougal High Principal Sheree Gomez-Clark promised the school’s seniors they will take part in a graduation ceremony, and that she will send them a survey asking for ideas about how to proceed with graduation and other end-of-the-year events.

“I know this is hard, and I know that there are a lot of questions that you have,” Gomez-Clark told the seniors. “We’re committed to coming up with those answers and sharing them with you as soon as we possibly can. I promise that we will celebrate you in a way that seniors have never been celebrated before. It’s going to look different, and that’s OK. You get to pave the way for what’s to come. Maybe we’ll come up with some new traditions that the seniors after you will get to celebrate as well.”

“It’s OK for you to be upset right now. It’s OK for you to grieve the things that we know you’re losing. It’s OK to be angry,” she continued. “I want you to process through those feelings. But what I don’t want, is I don’t want those emotions to be what defines your senior year.”

Washougal High’s class of 2020 graduation ceremony had been scheduled for Friday, June 8, at Fishback Stadium.

“We have a great teaching staff, and they have our best interests in mind,” Washougal senior Brevan Bea said. “Every teacher we talked to (last) week told us, ‘We will help you graduate and do what you need to do.’ We don’t know how, but we will graduate. It sucks, but looking on the bright side, we will get to pave our own way to do something that no other class might ever do again. That part will be nice, but going away from tradition is hard to do. We’ll have to adapt.”

District launches online learning platforms

For Washougal school leaders, Inslee’s and Reykdal’s announcement was disappointing, but far from unexpected.

“The signal was strong that we must have a contingency plan in place,” Templeton said. “We knew we were positioned well because of our one-to-one technolgy initiative, but we began to do some pre-planning and think about what it means to connect to students in different ways.

But there’s also a lot of disappointment.”
The school district, which closed its schools on March 16, along with every other district in the state, introduced its new online-based learning platforms on April 6. The district will continue to provide online instruction to students through June 19.

“There are challenges every day,” Templeton said, “(but) we’re doing well. Every day we are getting better at this. The Washougal School District is committed to fulfilling the promise that it made to the community that it’s going to know, nurture and challenge all students to rise, and we haven’t wavered from that. That quest will continue. What’s changed is the ‘how.’ We have a plan moving forward, and we see quite a few opportunities.”

Students in sixth through 12th grades already have access to Chromebooks, and the district is working to distribute 1,350 iPads to its students in kindergarten through fifth grades this week.

Paper-and-pencil packets will be made available to students, who will be able to pick up and drop off their assignments at neighborhood bus stops, according to Templeton.

In the new system, teachers are able to virtually meet with their students in large and small groups. 

“The teachers have made contact with all 3,000 students and learning is occurring,” Templeton said. “Kids are (participating) in Zoom meetings and completing assignments on Google Classrooms, and the teachers are assessing assignments. But they’re not just sitting in front of a screen for five hours; there’s a project-based learning component, so they are going outside and working on projects. They’ve responded so well. They’re acting like adults. We’re teaching them a lot of 21st-century skills, and they’re putting them into action and taking ownership of the situation.”

“The teachers are still learning about how this is going to work, so we all have to learn together,” said Washougal High junior Jaiden Bea. “It is different, but we’re planning solutions to work around (the challenges) and finding creative ways by working together. Overall it’s working well, and it will get better as we go along.”

The system provides “a lot more teacher contact for kids who need it,” said Templeton. “I heard one student say, ‘I don’t usually raise my hand in class, but with this new platform, I have the full attention of the teachers, and I’m asking questions that I typically wouldn’t ask.’”

“The education system hasn’t shifted significantly in over 100 years, but now it’s been completely disrupted,” she continued. “We get to pick and choose the benefits from this (situation) and keep them in place when the system is put back together. There can be long-lasting benefits that come out of this enormous challenge.”

The district continues to provide free meals to students from 10 a.m. to noon every weekday at Cape Horn-Skye and Hathaway elementary schools, Hamllik Park and Rockwood Terrace Apartments.

Since beginning the service on March 16, the district has given out 12,000 meals, or about 400 per day, Templeton said.

“To serve meals for our families in need during this school closure time, we have had to retool how we operated and fast,” said the district’s business manager, Kris Grindy. “No child should ever have to say that they do not have anything to eat. Food service (staff members have) done an amazing job transitioning over a weekend from serving our students in buildings to serving our students at food distribution sites.”

Templeton praised all of the district employees for their “hard work and super positive attitudes.”

“We’re asking them to do meaningful work that they’ve never done before,” she said. “Maybe what they usually do isn’t needed, but they’ve said, ‘What else can I do?’ Bus drivers are working in the child care center. Paraeducators are helping make copies of paper-and-pencil packets. Everybody is willing to work and do whatever they can to make sure the students are physically and socially healthy, and remain engaged in learning.”

WSD educators offer encouraging words to students

Jemtegaard Middle School eighth-grade history teacher Scott Rainey welcomed his students to online learning with a letter, which told them that even though “the buildings (are) closed, school is definitely in session, and there are plenty of incredibly important lessons to learn right now.”

Rainey read his letter on a XRAY FM-Portland/KXRW-Vancouver broadcast last week with the assistance of Washougal High paraeducator and volunteer radio producer Barb Seaman.

“Yes, this is a scary time, and yes, we don’t know how long it will last,” Rainey said. “Things are tough, and I’ll say it right out – it sucks to have to go through this as an eighth-grader. You don’t deserve this.”

Rainey referenced previous hardships such as the American Revolution, Civil War, Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, Great Depression, World War II, Cold War and 9/11 to provide his students with perspective and hope.

“The thing that all of the previous generations had in common was they did what Americans have always done in times of crisis – they came together, they sacrificed, they made do, they survived, and they came out stronger and better for it,” he said. “You’re all strong, you’re all brave, (and) you’re all totally capable of handling this. Words cannot express how proud I am to be able to teach this truly great generation.”

In her video, Gomez-Clark encouraged her students to remain “Panther strong.”

“(School being closed for the rest of the school year) is not what I wanted for you guys,” she said. “I wanted us to be back in (the) building doing all the things that we should be doing in the springtime. But more than that, I want you to be safe, I want you to be healthy, I want your families to be safe and healthy. … (But) even a global pandemic will not stop us from being kind, being compassionate, connecting with each other virtually and learning.”