Washougal’s youngest learners will soon be heading back to the classroom.
Although Washougal kindergarteners have been attending part-time, in-person classes since early November, Washougal School District leaders agreed Friday, Dec. 18, agreed to extend this small-group, in-person learning to students in first, second and third grades.
The students will return for in-person instruction two days a week, beginning Jan. 19.
“We are so excited to welcome additional students back in-person. We know how critical this is for student success,” Washougal School District Superintendent Mary Templeton said in a news release issued by the district. “We know this will be a huge support to our students and their families, and make so much more learning possible.”
Earlier this month, the Washington State Department of Health presented updated guidelines for school reopening, including metrics based on new research and data gathered by state and national officials that will allow schools to offer increased in-person learning opportunities for students.
“We are working with our teachers and staff, public health officials and other area school districts to review our safety protocols,” Washougal School District Assistant Superintendent Aaron Hansen wrote in a letter sent to parents and staff members last week. “We will get students into classrooms as quickly as we safely can within these new frameworks. School and class schedules will be posted as soon as they are available.”
While in the school buildings, Washougal students will be separated into groups of 15 or fewer and be required to undergo health screenings, wear face coverings, practice social distancing and wash their hands regularly.
Students will be separated into two cohorts based on the first letter of their last names. One group will receive in-person instruction on Mondays and Tuesdays while the other group will receive in-person instruction on Thursdays and Fridays. Students in both groups will continue online classes during the days they are not in the classroom.
Washougal school leaders hope to offer the hybrid model to fourth- and fifth-graders “shortly thereafter” as long as COVID-19 transmission within the schools is low, according to Les Brown, the district’s director of communications and technology.
“We are very optimistic about a return to in-person learning options for students,” Brown said. “The new toolkit provides for rigorous safety precautions to ensure student and staff safety.”
He added that the district also is planning to bring older students in middle and high school back for hybrid learning “in the coming months.”
For families not ready to return to a hybrid learning model, the district will still offer full-time remote education, Templeton said.
The Washougal School District’s announcement came less than a week after the Camas School Board approved revisions to that district’s school reopening plan and said they intend to offer limited, in-person learning opportunities for all K-12 students by the end of March 2021, beginning with small groups of first- and second-graders in January 2021.
Teachers union president: ‘Let’s make sure everybody is following the safety protocols’
Eric Engebretson, president of the Washougal teachers union, said teachers in the district remained “a mixed bag” when it comes to reopening local schools amidst increasing COVID-19 cases throughout Clark County.
“There are some who are concerned, which is not unusual, seeing that we’re in a pandemic,” Engebretson told the Post-Record on Saturday, Dec. 19, one day after the district’s announcement.
He added that the teachers union has been working with district leaders to make sure the two groups’ memorandum of understanding includes adequate safety protocols.
“So far, the protocols are there,” Engebretson said. “Now let’s make sure everybody is following the safety protocols. Period. That’s union members. Kids. Staff. And we need to make sure we’re following protocols within the community as well because we want (COVID) numbers to come down. We don’t want to go backwards.”
Engebretson said many Washougal teachers, himself included, are excited to meet their students in person and get back to a more “normal” way of working with the children. They also are hoping the community’s COVID-19 transmission rates, which are currently at 450 cases per 100,000 residents — five times the rate of 74 per 100,000 residents Clark County public health experts set as the benchmark for returning to a full hybrid-learning model. Washougal residents have reported 435 cases of COVID-19 in the local community, putting the town’s transmission rate at 2,035 per 100,000 residents, according to Clark County Public Health data.
Engebretson said the teachers union would like to see community rates stop accelerating and begin to decrease to help ensure the health of teachers and district staff — including bus drivers and custodians — as well as students and their families.
“We can’t relax now just because the vaccine is on the way,” Engebretson said. “And this cannot be political. This is a health issue for all of us and we have to do this together. It’s so important that we’re diligent. That we wear a face covering and wear it properly … students, staff and the community need to do these things.”
Engebretson added that he has already seen the district’s protocols working in the small-group kindergarten classes at his school building.
“I’ve seen the kindergarteners (physically distancing) and wearing their masks,” he said.
Now, the first-, second- and third-grade teachers will be instilling the same “new normal” inside their classrooms.
“The first week back after (winter break) will be dedicated to doing the trainings for teachers, for talking about what these protocols look like in the classroom,” Engebretson said.
As a fifth-grade teacher, Engebretson hasn’t yet met any of his 2020-21 students in-person.
“I haven’t met my kids yet other than on Zoom,” he said. “So I’m excited to come back, but want to make sure the protocols are in place.”
Editor Kelly Moyer contributed to this article.
This is a developing story. Look for more information about the state’s new school reopening guidelines and more reactions from local teachers unions in the Dec. 24 issue of the Post-Record.