‘We want students on campus’

Camas School District’s goal of reopening classrooms hinges on community COVID-19 transmission rates; would bring elementary students back first

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Camas School District Superintendent Jeff Snell speaks to the school board and community members in June 2019. . (Kelly Moyer/Post-Record)

Local students will start the 2020-21 school year online due to the still-present dangers of COVID-19, but Camas School District leaders remain focused on bringing students back to the classroom as soon as it’s safe to do so.

“Staff are working hard to figure out how to welcome families in this virtual world,” Camas School District Superintendent Jeff Snell told Camas school board members Monday, Aug. 24, at the board’s remote meeting. “(A remote start to the year) doesn’t mean our goal has changed. We want (students) on campus in a safe way. We want to protect students and staff but also not contribute to transmission rates in our community. We have a responsibility to do that.”

Camas school leaders have been working with regional school district administrators, the state’s department of health and county public health experts to determine when and how to safely bring students back to the classroom.

Washington’s Department of Health has provided a framework to help school district officials determine when to return to in-person learning. A number of factors must occur before Camas students can come back to the classroom, Snell said.

Among those factors: a three-week period of low to moderate COVID-19 activity in Clark County with fewer than 75 cases per 100,000 people and a determination that bringing younger, elementary school students back to the classroom has not caused an increase in community COVID-19 cases.

After three weeks of low (25 or fewer) or moderate (26 to 75) cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people in Clark County, Camas school leaders plan to bring elementary students back for a hybrid in-person/remote model that would allow for two days of in-person learning for each student.

“We have to get three weeks of low or moderate cases, and there are other indicators (to consider). We also will confer with public health partners,” Snell said. “We don’t want to bring kids on campus and then turn around and send them home. That’s really disruptive for everyone.”

Once elementary school students have been in the hybrid in-person/remote learning model for three weeks, district leaders will assess the safety of bringing middle and high school students back for their own version of the hybrid learning model.

“It’s important to get a three-week assessment and then decide what to do,” Snell said. “If there is an outbreak (in the school or community) then we’ll deal with that, but we want to be thoughtful about transitions in and transitions out (of the hybrid model).”

Because public health officials have noticed spikes in regional COVID-19 numbers following holidays, Camas school district leaders plan to wait until Sept. 21, two weeks after the Labor Day holiday weekend, to begin their first three-week assessment of county COVID-19 numbers.

If the county’s numbers stay below 75 over that three-week period, Camas elementary school families could return to a blend of in-person and remote learning by mid-October. Middle and high school students in Camas should expect to be in a remote-only model through at least the end of October.

Snell said the district would have a three- to four-week period of time to help families ramp up to the hybrid model of learning if the county’s COVID-19 numbers continue to trend “in a positive direction.”

Clark County has bounced back and forth from moderate to high COVID-19 activity over the past month. On July 27, the county was at 96.4 cases per 100,000 residents. On Aug. 3, those numbers dipped into the “moderate” category with 74.3 cases per 100,000. The following week, on Aug. 10, the county reported 88 cases per 100,000, placing it back into the “high” category. The next week it was again in the moderate zone with 74.7 cases. This week, the county swung back into the high category with 76.1 cases.

Snell said he wants the community to understand that the district’s decisions regarding remote or in-person learning are based on best-practice research and not made in a bubble.

“We’re communicating with people whose job it is to decide how we’re dealing with a public health (crisis),” Snell said.

District leaders also have been trying to keep up with school districts in the United States and around the world that have already brought students back to classrooms for in-person learning.

“I read this morning about Germany and how they’re handling it,” Snell said Monday. “Community transmission rate is really, really important when schools are reopening. Most countries that have reopened schools have lower rates of community transmission than we do. Because those community rates are lower, there’s a gap in research showing what happens when you reopen schools in (communities with higher transmission levels).”

Snell provided links to some of the research district administrators are relying on when making decisions about reopening schools in his Aug. 24 superintendent’s report, which is available on the school district website and was sent to families on Tuesday.

“The research … is all linked if people want to dive into it,” Snell said.

For more information on the county’s weekly COVID-19 activity, visit el-coronavirus.