Several dozen parents and students gathered in front of the Washougal School District office on Dec. 17 for an informal rally, waving signs in front of honking automobiles and calling for the district to reopen its buildings for in-person instruction.
One girl, a fifth-grader, held a sign that said, “All I want for Christmas is school.”
Washougal schools superintendent Mary Templeton saw the sign through her office window, went outside, approached the girl, nodded to the sign and said, “We’re on it. We have new information, and you’ll be back in the classroom with your teachers very soon.”
The next day, on Friday, Dec. 18, the district announced that it will offer its first-, second- and third-grade students in-person instruction two days per week starting Jan. 19, 2021.
The district said it hopes to bring back fourth- and fifth-graders “shortly thereafter.”
“I think that everybody — myself, the entire staff, the families and the students — feels optimistic and excited about these next steps as more children return to us in person,” Templeton said. “That’s always been the goal, and we always knew it would happen. We just didn’t know when. It will be so exciting and so wonderful to see that many children back in the buildings. We’re looking forward to it.”
School district leaders moved swiftly to implement the hybrid model after Washington Gov. Jay Inslee updated the state’s recommendations for reopening schools during the COVID-19 on Dec. 16.
According to the new guidelines, schools in counties with fewer than 50 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents can resume in-person learning at all grade levels; schools in counties with between 50 and 350 cases per 100,000 can bring back elementary and high-needs students; and schools in counties with more than 350 cases per 100,000 can open for for younger learners and students with high needs, and teach in groups of 15 or fewer.
The Clark County Health Department reported 450 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents Dec. 14.
“We are working with our teachers and staff, public health officials and other area school districts to review our safety protocols,” WSD assistant superintendent Aaron Hansen wrote in a letter to parents and staff members. “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.”
The new guidelines, from the Washington state Department of Health, cited new data from the Institute of Disease Modeling that concludes that open schools do not increase community transmission if safety measures are in place.
“We’ve learned a lot, and we’ve seen that schools aren’t the super-spreaders that we were concerned that they would be 10 months ago,” Templeton said. “It makes sense that schools are not impactful transmission sites because we are the rule followers of society. That’s our work. When we were given these mitigating factors, we implemented them with fidelity across the board. There’s been a ginormous amount of energy resources devoted to this. We were told to follow the rules to limit transmission. Well, we are following the rules. That’s the key to our expansion. It’s not a surprise to me.”
The Washougal School District currently provides in-person instruction to preschoolers, kindergartners and students with special needs. Students are required to provide attestations, undergo temperature screenings, wear face coverings, practice social distancing and wash their hands regularly while in the school buildings.
“Both students and staff engaged in our in-person small group instruction are very happy to be back in the classroom together,” said Les Brown, the district’s director of communications and technology. “Our students are enjoying personal attention, support and powerful learning opportunities that just don’t translate well to a virtual environment. The teachers are doing amazing work with the limited time they have with students, focusing on the most important standards and ensuring students keep their learning moving forward. Our kindergarten teachers leverage their in-person time provided with small-group instruction to set students up for success when they participate in virtual learning, making the most of both learning models.”
For the hybrid model, 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 Wednesdays and Thursdays. Students in both cohorts will take online classes on the days they are not in the classroom.
“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. We believe that we will have most (of our younger) students participating in our hybrid model in early 2021 and that most of our (older) students will be able to participate in hybrid in the coming months.”
Students can remain in the district’s full-time distance learning program if they so choose, according to Templeton.
“We aren’t finished yet with pandemic, but we’re starting to see the end of it,” she said. “I’d say to families who are not ready to send their children back to the buildings that we are maintaining our impactEd remote learning platform, and that they have a choice. We believe that most of our students will return to the buildings, but for the exceptions, we are prepared to offer a choice.”
Not every parent was happy about the school district’s announcement. Washougal resident Tara Poulsen said that the district’s remote learning platform “hasn’t worked” for her older children, who attend Washougal High School and Jemtegaard Middle School.
“(The plan) sounds great for elementary school students, but it’s lacking a clear plan for middle and high school students,” she said. “Parents and students are tired of waiting. Parents and teachers should have been given a choice from the beginning of the school year whether they felt safe with in-person learning or not. We are hoping to see all students go back to school sooner than what the district has planned, and not just a focus on elementary students.”
Inslee said Dec. 16 that, because high school students are similar to adults in terms of how they can catch and transmit COVID-19, they should be among the last groups to return to in-person learning.