Longtime Camas-Washougal preschool struggles to stay open during pandemic

Enrollment at 80-year-old preschool cooperative has plummeted during school shutdowns; parent-led board asks alumni, community for help

A sign outside the Camas-Washougal Parent Co-op Preschool in Camas gives contact information for the 80-year-old cooperative preschool. (Contributed photo courtesy of Mindy O'Neil)

Contributed photos courtesy of Mindy O'Neil Students gather inside a classroom at the Camas-Washougal Parent Co-op Preschool in Camas in November 2020. (Contributed photo courtesy of Camas-Washougal Parent Co-op Preschool)

The letter from the board president did not mince words.

“It would be an understatement to say that this year has been a challenge for our preschool,” Mindy O’Neil wrote to hundreds of alumni families who have sent their children to the Camas-Washougal Parent Co-op Preschool over the years. “We have been feverishly working over the last few months to pull in as many students as possible and keep our school open. This week, we learned that our finances will no longer allow us to do that.”

The nonprofit preschool — Clark County’s oldest continuously running cooperative preschool — had been a community staple since 1940, but the pandemic’s impact was something O’Neil and other board members couldn’t ignore.

“Our school year started with full rosters and high hopes,” O’Neil told the alumni.

But when COVID-19 cases started to surge and local school districts decided to begin the 2020-21 school year with online-only classes, O’Neil said the preschool’s enrollment took a hit.

Overnight, the preschool lost half of its enrolled students and the volunteer board members started to wonder how they would be able to pay the school’s teachers and keep the doors open.

By mid-December, the school had depleted its emergency savings and board members knew, if they couldn’t raise more money, they would have to close the 80-year-old school for good.

“If we can’t keep it open this year, we can’t register kids for next year,” O’Neil told the Post-Record. “We do have staff members who are volunteering their time at this point. We did not want them to have to do this, but they offered that up.”

Board members also reached out to alumni and the general community via an online GoFundMe fundraiser.

“I am reaching out to you to let you know how heartbroken we are to be in this position,” O’Neil wrote in her letter to alumni. “If we cannot complete this school year, we do not realistically think that we will ever be able to reopen our doors again.”

The board also has implemented several cost-cutting measures, O’Neil added, and reached out to corporations known to support educational organizations.

The final step was to appeal directly to alumni and the greater Camas-Washougal community.

“For 80 years, our small but mighty co-op has provided a safe and enriched environment in which thousands of students have learned and grown,” O’Neil said.

The school is unique among other preschools due to the fact that it operates as a cooperative, with parents and caregivers heavily involved in the daily school operations.

“Co-op preschools are a dying breed,” said Maria Lattanzi. “And this one is just such an important part of the community.”

Lattanzi taught at the school for 27 years, beginning in the mid-1980s, sent her own children to the preschool and has a grandson who will attend the school in January.

“It was a wonderful experience,” Lattanzi said of her time at the preschool co-op as a parent and a teacher. “We were very involved in the community.”

The preschool children often trek with their classmates into nearby downtown Camas to learn about the community and visit places like the post office and fire station.

Lattanzi said she is hopeful the preschool can raise the necessary funds to keep its door open long enough to survive the pandemic.

“Hopefully the community will be able to come together to help them,” she said.

O’Neil said the initial response has been heartening, and that the preschool has even had a few new enrollments from families who liked the idea of sending their youngest children to a preschool that emphasizes parent and caregiver involvement.

“We got a ton of enrollments this week,” O’Neil said on Dec. 18. “We still have about 20 to 22 openings.”

Parents or caregivers, which can include nannies and grandparents or other family members, must pass a background check and commit to working 10 to 20 hours a year for the school, attending two board meetings a year and volunteering in their child’s classroom roughly once a month.

O’Neil said the preschool appealed to her and her husband, because they wanted to be more involved in their children’s education than a traditional preschool would have allowed.

“This is my fifth year at the co-op. It’s unique because parents are in the classroom every single day, supporting the kiddos,” O’Neil said.

The parent time commitment has been hard for many of the co-op’s families who are also juggling remote jobs and remote schooling for their older children, O’Neil said.

Board members hope more families might be able to return to the preschool now that both the Camas and Washougal school districts have announced plans to return students to the classroom on a part-time basis beginning in January 2021.

“We hope that will have an impact,” O’Neil said.

For families wondering about COVID-19 safety protocols, O’Neil said the preschool has implemented several precautions, including a requirement that teachers, volunteers and older siblings wear face coverings at the school.

The preschool’s students, who are all 4 years and younger, are not required to wear face coverings.

“The kids are there for two and a half hours a day, so we didn’t want teachers to spend that time policing masks,” O’Neil explained.

The school also has staggered the times students go to recess and enter/exit the building to reduce crowding, and has a portable hand-washing station and sanitation protocols.

O’Neil said her own children love going to the preschool.

“I have two kiddos there, a 2 year old and a 4 year old. They are so happy and just seem so fulfilled,” O’Neil said. “They come home happy and proud of themselves.”

O’Neil said she also sees that her older child, a second-grader, has seemed more lonesome and discouraged being away from their teachers and friends at school.

“I see both sides of it,” she said of her children’s remote and in-person learning opportunities. . “That’s why I’m pushing so hard to keep (the preschool co-op) going.”

To learn more about the Camas-based preschool co-op, visit cwcoop.org/co-op-preschool. To view the school’s GoFundMe campaign, visit gofundme.com/f/save-the-camaswashougal-coop-preschool.