WSD enrollment drops, parents push for schools to reopen

Families confront school board, say students need in-person learning

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category icon COVID-19 coverage, Latest News, News, Schools, Washougal
The Washougal School District Administrative Offices are pictured Tuesday morning, April 14, 2020. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian)

The Washougal School District estimates it is 200 students short of the 3,010 students expected to attend school in the district during the 2020-21 school year.

Some parents say they expect that number will increase as long as the district remains in a remote-only learning environment during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If the Washougal School District does not take a stance, many parents will pull (their children) out of school,” said Washougal resident Emily Watts during the Washougal school board’s Dec. 8 meeting. “We parents are tired, and downright worried about our kids. I’m not a fearful person, but I find myself fearful as the weeks continue on. As I watch my kids sit in front of their screen every day, void of emotion, I’m numb. We thank you for reaching out to us to try to add more tools, but we don’t need more virtual support. We need someone in your position to help us. Other districts are making it work. Why is Clark County behind the times and at the mercy of (Clark County Public Health Director) Dr. (Alan) Melnick?”

Watts was one of several community members who spoke at the virtual board meeting and urged school district leaders to reopen Washougal schools for some type of in-person learning.

Heather Purdin has always been a big supporter of the Washougal School District. She attended Washougal schools and said she looked forward to watching her son, Jack, a freshman, graduate from Washougal High School in a few years. Her mother, Debbie Leifsen, works as a library assistant at Jemtegaard Middle School.

But, Purdin told the school board on Dec. 8, after watching Jack struggle to adapt to remote learning, her family made a difficult decision to remove their son from Washougal High School.

“I feel like enough hope was dangled above our heads to give it a try, even after the disaster of online learning in the spring,” Purdin told the board. “I know the teachers and staff (members) were scrambling to learn how to teach in this new contactless environment. As a pro-school parent, I wanted to give the opportunity to prove it could be done. Unfortunately for us and many families, it’s not working.”

“With so many families pulling out of school all around the state and our community, I think it’s unfortunate (that the students) will ultimately suffer the consequences of the loss of funding,” Purdin added. “I think it’s unfortunate that future levies will not pass. Like most families, I have always voted in favor of school. Why would we now?”

Kris Grindy, the school district’s business manager, said decreasing enrollment numbers would impact the school district’s finances.

“Our enrollment drives the revenue for the district,” Grindy said. “We are embarking on times that are contingent on student enrollment in a virtual, remote-learning environment, and our enrollment is down. We continue to strategically plan for future expenses by evaluating our resources, making every dollar count, and making program and system investments while monitoring and adjusting to our enrollment as it changes.”

Washougal resident Jesse Poulsen asked district leaders if they believe they’re “entitled to all of the money they’ve received from property taxes when the service they normally would be providing in exchange for those monies is not being delivered.”

“I personally know several families who have pulled their kids out of the Washougal School District and have decided to either homeschool them, enroll them in a private school or temporarily leave the state and enroll them in schools where they can receive quality, in-person education,” Poulsen said. “The policy to continue distance learning and not hold in-person class is continuing to place further financial burden on families who may already be facing job loss and/or reduction in hours. In addition, families are incurring learning costs that normally would be covered by the school district for learning materials such as curriculums and printing supplies.”

District leaders said they prepared for the possibility of lower enrollment, but hoped that some of the measures that they implemented earlier this year, such the upgraded impactED virtual learning system and online-only Washougal Learning Academy, would help keep families in the district.

After seeing a drop in enrollment numbers in September, Washougal school board members approved a recommendation to furlough 60 transportation, library, custodian, paraeducator and other classified employees.

“We were planning and preparing for a decreased enrollment based on COVID,” Washougal School District Superintendent Mary Templeton said during the Dec. 8 board meeting. “We saw that coming.”

Other parents voiced their concerns and asked pointed questions about the efficacy of the district’s remote learning model during the Dec. 8 meeting.

“There are inconsistent policies from school to school that need to be addressed,” Kelli Eldridge, the mother of a Gause Elementary School student, told the board. “This district constantly feels (like it’s) in a state of chaos, and there’s no transparency. … It’s time to start listening to parents, and it’s time to put kids first.”

Washougal High School junior Paige Maas told the school board she is willing to risk returning to school despite the fact that she has an underlying health condition that puts her at greater risk of having a severe reaction to COVID-19.

“I have been battling death every single day for 10 years because I live with Type-1 diabetes,” Maas said. “Every night that I go to bed, there’s a possibility that I will not be waking up the next morning. Please stop saying that we can’t reopen schools because we need to protect people like me. Despite being high risk, I do not live in fear of a virus. Stating that schools cannot reopen because we can’t protect those at risk is truly a misguided statement, because there are greater things to fear. Coronavirus is a temporary issue, but the effects on physical and mental health will be a long-term concern, and the lack of effort to fix this is unbelievable.”

Templeton told the Post-Record in November that while she believes the district has made “great improvements” to its remote learning model, the platform could be improved in several areas, most notably student engagement and grading practices.

The district currently provides in-school instruction to preschoolers, kindergartners and students with special needs, but has no plans to open its buildings to any more students until Clark County’s infection numbers reduce drastically, Templeton said.

County public health experts have recommended schools do not reopen for hybrid in-person/remote learning until the community’s COVID-19 activity levels are in the moderate range with 74 or fewer cases per 100,000 residents for three consecutive weeks. Currently, the county’s COVID-19 activity rate is in the high range, with 450 cases per 100,000 residents.

In October, two WSD staff members tested positive for COVID-19. Tempelton said they acquired the virus outside of school and did not spread it to students or staff members.

According to Clark County Public Health, the district had five additional COVID-19 cases among staff members between Nov. 19 and Nov. 30.