Camas tackles 2020-21 school year preparations amid COVID-19 pandemic

Current plans call for full week of in-person classes for elementary students, mix of onsite and remote learning at middle and high schools

As COVID-19 cases continue to climb in Washington state and other parts of the country, parents of school-aged children are wondering what the 2020-21 school year will look like for their families and communities.

In Camas, the current plan calls for younger students to return to in-person learning five days a week while older students in middle and high school will have a blend of in-person and distance-learning classes.

Currently, the district plans to also have a full remote option available for students in all grades and the ability to move into a more flexible hybrid of in-person and remote classes depending on what is happening with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are focused on having elementary students come back five days a week,” Camas School District Superintendent Jeff Snell said during a June 24 virtual town hall, adding that Camas elementary schools have enough space for younger students to safely distance from one another.

“We also want to make sure that full remote learning is an option, because there are some families that are worried about (their children returning to full-time, in-person learning in the fall),” Snell said.

At the secondary level, which includes students in grades six through 12, Snell said it would be “much more difficult to return to a full, five-day week” under the state’s current COVID-19 guidelines.

“If something changes in the next six weeks and we can (return to a full week of in-person learning for older students), we will. But we can’t bank on that, so our plan is (to have) a blended model, with students having a minimum of two days on site and (up to) three days remote,” Snell said. “We want to have the ability to flex up to more days on campus or more days (at home) depending on (local and state public health requirements).”

Current state guidelines will require students and staff to wear masks on school campuses and inside classrooms, with precautions in place for those exempted from wearing a face coverings.

Snell said district leaders and educators are discussing a range of process and procedure alterations in light of the new state COVID-19 guidelines for K-12 schools, including issues surrounding the wearing of face coverings throughout the school day.

“We have to wear face coverings, so how do we do that? What does that look like?” Snell asked. “We need to develop different procedures to (wear masks) and move safely throughout the day.”

Snell said the district has a wide range of processes and procedures to consider in light of the ongoing coronavirus crisis.

“This isn’t easy,” Snell said. “We’re used to operating in a certain way and that will change, and change is never easy.”

Snell said district leaders would continue to update the community throughout the summer, with another update scheduled for mid-July.

“Over the last four months, what we’ve (learned about guidelines related to the pandemic) is that things can change in one day,” Snell said. “So, we recognize we need to be adaptable.”

Reykdal: ‘schools will reopen this fall for in-person instruction’

In a nearly 60-page “Reopening Washington Schools 2020” school district planning guide released in June, Chris Reykdal, Washington state’s superintendent of public instruction, stated his expectation is that “schools will reopen this fall for in-person instruction.”

How school districts plan for such a reopening will depend on a number of factors, including the current state of COVID-19 in that district’s local community.

“For some of you … your fall opening may be a hybrid face-to-face/online model or any combination of modalities and schedules that meet your local community needs.”

The 120-member Reopening Washington Schools Workgroup, which included educators — including Camas’ Amy Campbell, the state’s “Educator of the Year” — elected officials, parents, students and community members, helped guide the state’s school district planning guide.

Remote learning will play a big part in the Camas School District’s plans for the 2020-21 school year.

Responding to feedback from parents, students and staff — some of whom were frustrated in the spring when educators used a bevy of remote-learning platforms and communications tools to help students shift from in-person education to an at-home learning environment — Snell said the district has selected one platform for staff-parent communication.

Educators will use a blend of video conferencing, video lessons on Screencastify and WeVideo; as well as distance-learning platforms to help students stay up-to-date when they’re logging in from home or in the event that the district needs to shift to fully remote learning for a few days or weeks.

Snell said county health officials have told him they don’t intend to necessarily shut down the entire district or even an entire school each time a COVID-19 case pops up.

“If a case occurs in our schools, they won’t just close the school … but look at the specific risk (and contact trace to help prevent the spread of the virus),” Snell said.

Families, students and staff weigh in

The district surveyed hundreds of families, students and staff to gauge opinions on everything from the best way to return to school in the fall to the importance of deep cleaning classrooms and wearing face coverings.

Families and students were more likely to support a full-time return to school, with more than 60 percent of families and more than half of students saying they “support” a return to a regular school day and schedule. Staff were less likely to be enthusiastic about a return to “normal” school day, with a little more than 40 percent of them saying they supported that idea.

School district staff did, however, strongly support a blended return to school with more than 60 percent giving the thumbs up to a blend of in-person and remote learning.

Fewer than 20 percent of families and students (and right around 20 percent of staff) supported a fully remote, distance-learning model for the 2020-21 school year.

Staff, students and families tended to share similar thoughts on many of the COVID-19 preventative measures, with most agreeing that measures such as enhanced cleaning in the schools; daily temperature and symptom screening; lower numbers of COVID-19 cases in the community; and staff and students wearing appropriate personal protective equipment such as face coverings were “important” and “extremely important.”

Other measures, such as having a COVID-19 vaccine available and minimizing students’ movements throughout the sday, ranked lower on the list of “important” and “extremely important” precautions for all three groups.

Staff were more likely than students or families to say wearing face coverings was “important” or “extremely important.”

Likewise, staff were much more likely to rank social distancing as an important part of returning to school safely amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. About 70 percent of students and more than half of the families surveyed felt social distancing — a state requirement for returning to in-person learning — was either “not important” or “moderately important.”

In another survey, 19 percent of staff said they were “quite concerned” or “extremely concerned” about their physical well-being; with another 24 percent reporting they felt “somewhat concerned” about their physical health. Only one out of every four staff members said they felt “not at all concerned” about their physical well-being amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Though they are concerned about their physical health, staff at Camas schools are less likely than the students they serve to report concern for their emotional and social well-being: more than half of the staff said they were “not at all” or “slightly” concerned with their social-emotional health and only 4 percent said they were “extremely concerned.”

On the flip side, students are reporting higher levels of boredom and loneliness, with 67 percent of students in grades 6-12 and half of those in grades 3-5 reporting they feel bored “frequently” or “almost always.”

Similarly, 60 percent of students in grades 6-12 and 43 percent of those in grades 3-5 said they felt excited “almost never” or “once in a while.”

“We want better for our students in the fall,” Snell said. “The goals we’re highlighting focus on mental health and support in the fall.”

Snell said district leaders also are concerned about keeping things safe for staff members worried about their physical health.

“Our most valuable resource is our amazing staff,” he said. “Our staff needs to be healthy to serve our students.”

Some still question masks, compare COVID-19 to flu

Snell said the guidelines that have received the most questions from the community involve physical distancing and face coverings.

“When you look at the (state) guidance, they’re very specific about face coverings,” Snell said. “(Face coverings) are required in a K-12 setting.”

He added that there would be exceptions made for students who “may have the inability to put on or take off a face covering.”

In responses from families and students collected during the school district’s virtual town halls and on surveys, some Camas community members question the state’s and district’s COVID-19 prevention methods.

“They are kids,” wrote one community member. “This virus is no worse than the flu, so I see no need to change much of anything.”

“Masks harm people more than the COVID-19 does,” a student wrote.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has dispelled the notion that COVID-19 is less dangerous than a seasonal flu, stating that the coronavirus that has killed more than 130,000 Americans since February is “more contagious among certain populations and age groups than the flu … and has been observed to have more superspreading events than the flu.”

The CDC also states COVID-19, unlike the flu, can cause Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome, a rare but severe complication, in children and has been known to cause additional complications, even in younger people, such as blood clots in the veins and arteries of the lungs, heart, legs or brain. Recent research suggests the novel coronavirus may be causing neurological damage in some patients, even those who experienced only mild respiratory symptoms.

The CDC also recommends that people wear cloth face coverings in public settings to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, stating that “COVID-19 spreads mainly from person to person through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, talks or raising their voice (e.g., while shouting, chanting or singing).”

Snell said some community members have questioned why the district must follow the state’s COVID-19 guidelines during the 2020-21 school year.

“I am responsible for following the law and following these guidelines,” Snell said. “Even if I wanted to break the law, I would be putting our state funding in jeopardy.”

The superintendent added that he is choosing to see the multiple challenges ahead as opportunities to better understand the community’s perspectives and thoughts on the pandemic and on how to best make students’ return to school in the fall healthy and safe for everyone.

“There are no simple solutions moving forward with this,” Snell said. “The challenge we’re working through is obviously complex with multiple layers. There is no clear switch to turn on … and it’s like a labyrinth of life decisions that depend on each other. The first decision affects the second decision … it’s difficult to know where to start.”

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