Teachers unions: safety is top concern

Union leaders react to news of school reopenings in Camas and Washougal, urge community to help reduce spread of COVID-19

Teachers union leaders in Camas and Washougal say local educators’ reactions to recent news that both school district plan to bring many students back to the classroom soon after the winter break — despite the fact that Clark County COVID-19 infections remain on an upward trajectory — run the gamut, from apprehensive to exuberant.

“I’ve heard mixed reviews,” said Shelley Houle, president of the Camas Education Association, the union that represents more than 460 Camas educators. “Some teachers are really excited and others have concerns about safety protocols.”

Eric Engebretson, president of the Washougal teachers union, agreed.

“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 that school district announced it would bring first-, second- and third-graders back for a hybrid of in-person and remote learning in mid-January 2021.

The Washougal School District announcement came four days after Camas school board members unanimously committed to bringing first- and second-graders back to the classroom on a limited, part-time basis in January 2021 and to having in-person learning opportunities for every K-12 student by the end of March 2021.

“We kind of knew it was coming,” Houle said of the revised reopening plan, “and that it would be done in phases.”

Gov. Jay Inslee also announced a change in the state’s guidance for school reopenings last week. The new guidelines group schools into three categories, with low, moderate and high COVID-19 rates, when it comes to offering in-person instruction.

Counties where COVID-19 cases are over 350 per 100,000 residents — including Clark County, where rates are over 400 cases per 100,000 residents — are considered to be in the “high” category, with a state recommendation that schools in these counties “should only offer in-person instruction for elementary and high-need students in small groups of 15 students or fewer.”

Camas and Washougal school districts have been offering small-group, in-person learning to high-need students since the summer and to kindergarteners since early November. The districts’ new plans call for a continuation of that small-group learning, with up to 15 students per group, beginning with elementary students in January 2021, then expanding to include middle and high school students.

The state’s new guidelines recommend a phased-in plan for in-person learning “starting with elementary students not already attending in-person and middle school students, followed by high school students” for counties with moderate COVID-19 cases between 50 and 350 cases per 100,000 residents; and for making in-person learning available to all students once a county has reached the “low” category with fewer than 50 cases per 100,000 residents.

“Our teachers and school administrators have done a phenomenal job navigating unprecedented challenges,” Inslee said during a Dec. 16 press conference to announce the new guidelines. “This updated guidance provides a framework and will help schools plan and prepare so that when the metrics reach the appropriate level, they’re able to resume in-person instruction quickly and safely.”

Chris Reykdal, Washington’s superintendent of public instruction, added that the state has set aside $3 million in funds to help school districts pay for third-party safety audits and meet the state’s mandated safety requirements for restarting in-person learning.

“Our state has some of the most stringent health and safety protocols for schools in the nation, and those are working to limit the spread of the virus in our schools,” Reykdal said Dec. 16. “Most students do best in the traditional in-person school environment with their peers and educators. With the science and data showing us we can do this safely, I am confident we should begin moving more of our students back to the physical classroom.”

Houle and Engebretson said teachers unions in Camas and Washougal have insisted on stringent safety protocols in their memorandums of understanding (MOUs) with the school districts.

“When we reopen, we want to do it right,” Houle said. “Obviously we want the mask-wearing and social distancing … but we also want to have confidence that the protocols are being followed consistently.”

Engebretson told the Post-Record on Saturday, Dec. 19, that the Washougal teachers union has been working with district leaders to make sure their MOU includes adequate safety protocols designed to protect not just teachers but also other school staff, students, families and the community in general.

“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. The union leaders said they also hope 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 in the summer months as the benchmark for returning to a full hybrid-learning model — will soon start to level off and begin to decrease, but cautioned that now is not the time to give up on the safety protocols meant to prevent the spread of a virus that has killed more than 330,000 Americans in less than 10 months.

“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.”

Houle agreed.

“We need a renewed mindfulness of the health protocols,” she said. “I live across from a park in Vancouver, and I see people gathered together without masks. I hear about sleepovers and big family gatherings.”

Houle added that she wished the people who have been making the most noise about the need to reopen schools would push just as hard for people in the community to help reduce COVID-19 rates by following protocols such as wearing face coverings and avoiding gatherings with people outside their own households.

“I have four grown children and four grandbabies, and we’re not gathering (for the winter holidays) this year,” Houle said. “We all have to make this sacrifice. It’s temporary, but we need to get through this.”

Focus on safety, meeting student needs

Both union presidents said the focus on safety protocols — with an emphasis on the proper use of masks, sanitation of buildings. ensuring that school ventilation systems are being maintained more frequently and encouraging the opening of windows for air flow, weather permitting — is paramount, but also highlighted a growing concern over teachers’ workload as they transition into yet another unknown chapter in the ongoing pandemic.

“Safety and protocols are No. 1, but No. 2 is the workload,” Houle said. “The workload is higher this year. And while we appreciate the governor and district calling us heroes, everybody is working harder than anyone has ever worked before. And it is concerning to think that this workload is going to go up with these changes.”

Houle said teachers are already talking about how they might best support each other during the hybrid of in-person and remote learning, especially considering the fact that many teachers are already working in the evenings and on weekends to make the current remote situation work for them and their students.

Hearing people in the community say they would like to have their taxes returned to them because their students are in a remote learning environment is frustrating, Houle said.

“It’s disheartening to hear that,” Houle said. “We don’t want any extra praise, but hearing that hurts.”

Local educators have adapted to teaching online classes since last spring, Houle and Engebretson said.

“It’s been a different beast working strictly by Zoom,” Engebretson said. “But we do get to know (students) in different ways.”

Houle, a fifth-grade teacher at Helen Baller Elementary School in Camas, said she feels like she has a new outlook into her students’ lives thanks to remote learning.

“We have a doorway into our students’ homes. And I feel like I know my students more, know their families … their siblings and their pets.”

The closer relationship with families is something Houle hopes will strengthen after students move back into a part-time in-classroom environment.

“When they do come in, we can spend a lot of time and get to know our community even better,” she said.

Both union presidents acknowledged that many students in Camas and Washougal have struggled emotionally and socially during the more than eight months that they’ve been isolated from their peers, teachers and school community.

“And families are struggling, too,” Engebretson said. “They’re juggling work and remote learning. Some have kids in multiple grades and are juggling Zoom times. Many are working from home, too. And they’re exhausted.”

Many teachers, parents and school district leaders have said they hope that getting “back to normal” with limited in-person classroom opportunities will help bolster students’ social-emotional wellbeing and boost their academic skills.

The union presidents said they are still trying to work out the logistics of balancing hybrid learning models while still serving families who choose to remain in a 100-percent remote learning model. They also face a shortage of substitute teachers, worry about having a clear plan for what happens if the community’s COVID-19 rates continue to increase and are hoping state leaders will again cancel standardized testing so teachers can concentrate on helping students get back into the swing of in-person school in the spring.

Still, there are positive signs that the steps both school districts have already taken are successful in giving students a chance to attend school without increasing COVID-19 rates within the school buildings or in the community.

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.”