Four weeks after a group of Camas parents rallied in front of school district offices to reopen schools, the Camas School Board has unanimously approved a plan to offer small-group, in-person learning to all K-12 students by the end of March 2021.
“I don’t think anybody anticipated we would still be at step one of our reopening plan in December,” Camas School District Superintendent Jeff Snell told school board members Monday, Dec. 14, during their virtual board meeting, adding that now was “an important point” for the board to give staff direction on how to possibly revise the reopening plan they established over the summer.
Like most school districts in Clark County, Camas’ reopening plan calls for a return to hybrid learning, with students attending classes in-person two days a week and taking remote classes the rest of the week, once the community’s COVID-19 transmission rates fall into the moderate category, with 74 or fewer cases per 100,000 residents, for three consecutive weeks. The county has not been in the moderate transmission range since early September. The county’s weekly COVID-19 activity level jumped from 131 cases per 100,000 residents on Nov. 2 to 447 cases per 100,000 on Dec. 7.
Despite the exponential growth of COVID-19 in the community, Snell said there are several reasons to believe that bringing students back for limited, small-group, in-person learning is safe for students, staff and members of the general community.
“Our mitigation strategies are working,” Snell told school board members Monday, pointing to data showing that the school district has been able to safely bring 1,400 students — including more than 320 kindergarteners — back to the classrooms for small-group learning.
Although the district has had one suspected case of staff-to-staff COVID-19 transmission at school, Snell said the district has not seen any true outbreaks of the novel coronavirus, which has killed more than 300,000 people in the United States in less than 10 months.
“We have had one issue where staff members potentially contracted the virus from each other on campus … but we have seen no significant increase to staff and students as long as we follow mitigation efforts,” Snell said.
The superintendent added that district leaders have tracking the research and data coming out of other school districts around the world and in the U.S., and are finding that schools that follow proper COVID-19 safety protocols such as mandating the use of face coverings, maintaining physical distancing and adhering to strict sanitization regimens, may still have COVID-19 transmissions — “there is no ‘zero risk,'” Snell said — but have not been the source of massive outbreaks.
“We are still seeing they are not superspreader events,” Snell said of schools that have reopened around the world.
The district has surveyed Camas parents and found that more than three-fourths say they are interested in some form of in-person learning for their students. About 25 percent of families have indicated that they would prefer to keep their students in a remote-only school setting during the COVID-19 pandemic.
More than 700 Camas parents have joined an online group called Save Our Schools and organized rallies throughout the community urging school district leaders to bring students back to the classroom sooner rather than later.
On Monday, Snell read public comments from three parents pushing for a return to in-person learning.
“I believe that it is time for the parents and kids in Washington to have a choice of going to in-person school. The nation is back to school. I see my friends’ kids going to school five days a week, playing sports like football, volleyball, starting school plays, even wrestling. They have far (worse) numbers than we do in Camas; yet our kids are still being forced to ‘learn’ at home,” wrote parent Jennifer Barnes. “I want to fight for the kids that don’t have a good home environment. It is time we had a choice. This is ridiculous. The rest of the nation has figured this out. We can’t even figure out a hybrid plan?”
Parent Jessica Mitchell agreed that the district needs to reopen its schools, writing: “(Washington) state superintendent Chris Reykdal has recently said distance learning is not working for many students, including his own, and that students are not engaging. We see children all over the country, and the world, attending school in-person and the students in our region will be at a major disadvantage academically, mentally, physically and socially if we do not follow suit. … Kids know how to wear masks and they can socially distance. Give them a chance to prove they can rise to the challenge.”
For the 1,400 students who have returned to the classroom on a limited basis, Snell said the students report positive academic and social-emotional results.
“Social-emotional indicators from students reflect the need for increased in-person learning experiences, in particular, to help students engage in the learning community,” Snell wrote in his staff report to the school board, adding that academic indicators have shown an increase in Camas students who are “struggling with failing or in danger of (receiving) failing marks.”
Snell said the district hopes to move into a full hybrid-learning phase once COVID-19 transmission rates fall back into the moderate range. Until then, he said, district leaders “believe it is important to use current recommendations, research and experience to increase in-person learning opportunities” for all K-12 students.
These opportunities may not look like regular classroom learning, especially for older students, but could be “check-in opportunities (for) students to connect and build community,” Snell said.
The in-person learning will remain limited to small groups of 10 students or less and start with students who have been determined by their schools to have the highest need for in-person education.
The plan approved Monday by school board members will begin bringing more elementary school students back for small-group learning in January 2021. By the end of February 2021, the district will offer in-person, small-group experiences for any student in elementary or middle school who wants it. By the end of March 2021, the district plans to have small-group, in-person learning opportunities for all of its students.
“By the end of March all students (will) have some sort of in-person learning experience,” Snell said.
Camas school board members agreed with the superintendent’s plan for bringing students back for small-group, in-person learning over the next three months.
“I would like to see every kid have an academic experience in schools,” said board president Connie Hennessey, adding that she would like to see an accelerated plan for bringing older students, particularly those in middle and high school who are at risk of failing as well as high school seniors “because they don’t have a ‘next year’ to come back and regain those connections,’ back for limited in-person learning. “I would like to see a plan for how fast we can do that, especially at the secondary level.”
Board member Corey McEnry, who works as the band director at Hockinson High School, said he supports bringing students back for in-person learning, but wants to ensure that the Camas district can help staff feel safe returning to the classroom.
Snell said he spoke to Shelley Houle, president of the local teachers’ union, on Monday and that there are teachers in the district who are ready to come back to the classroom as soon as possible while others “have some legitimate concerns.”
Board member Doug Quinn said he would like to see all students have “some sort of in-person setting by February and no later than March,” but is “sensitive to putting teachers and all of the staff … back into (school buildings during a pandemic.)”
“It sounds like we have ways of doing this successfully,” Quinn added. “I’m feeling a little bit encouraged that we have means of having some movement and not remaining in this current condition too much longer.”
After the school board unanimously approved the new reopening plan, Snell thanked the board members.
“Thank you,” Snell said. “I know it’s not an easy decision, but I believe this gets us to a point where we’re better able to meet student needs.”
To review the district’s revised reopening plan, visit camas.wednet.edu/covid-19/2020-reopening-resources.