Local kindergarteners head back to school

School districts began bringing youngest learners back to the classroom for small-group, in-person learning this week

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Kindergarten teacher Marilyn Canfield leads students at Helen Baller Elementary School in Camas on Monday, Nov. 9, the first day of in-person kindergarten classes at the school district since the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered classrooms throughout Clark County in March 2020. (Contributed photo by Doreen McKercher, courtesy of the Camas School District)

Hundreds of Camas-Washougal kindergarten students experienced their classrooms for the first time this week, after leaders in both school districts OK’d the reopening of school buildings for their youngest learners.

Doug Hood, the Camas School District’s director of elementary education, said the first day of in-person, small-group kindergarten classes, held Monday, Nov. 9, took a lot of work to coordinate but, in the end, went smoothly.

“About 80 percent of our families chose on-site learning, so that’s about 328 families,” Hood told Camas School Board members Monday, just a few hours after the first cohort of “kinders” left their classrooms. “Eighty-two kindergarten students’ (families) chose to remain in a fully remote learning experience.”

Camas kindergarteners have returned to the classroom on a part-time — two half days a week — basis and will remain in small groups of no more than 10 students. To further prevent the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, the students and all school staff are required to wear face coverings, sit at desks that are physically distanced from one another and have their families attest to a series of questions meant to keep possibly infected children home from school.

Hood said many of the kinders who came to school for the first time on Monday showed enthusiasm for their new routine.

“Two students liked it so much they wanted to spend the night and wondered if we had sleeping bags,” Hood said.

And one student told their teacher: “You are less boring than home.”

Even outside the classroom, during breaks for recess, the students will stay in their own cohorts to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, Hood said, pointing to a photo of a playground that has different “zones” marked by colorful cones.

After thanking the teachers, staff, bus drivers and principals for “going nonstop” to make the first week of in-person school a reality for the majority of Camas kindergarten families, Hood told the board that Monday was “a really awesome day.”

The move sparked some Camas families to push the district for more reopenings.

“We no longer have a legitimate excuse to prolong the return to (in-person learning at) our Camas district schools,” Sarah Christensen, a resident of the school district, wrote in an open letter to Camas School Board members this week.

Noting several private schools in the area that have reopened their classrooms during the pandemic, including Camas Christian Academy in Camas and Kings Way Christian School in Vancouver, Christensen said she believed “they, like many other districts and schools all around us, have figured out a way to continue to protect the education and mental health of their students.”

“We know this can be done. We know that the majority of the parents in the district support it, as evidenced with the high return of kindergarteners,” Christensen stated in her letter. “We know that the remote learning program was put in place as a bridge. It is not and never will be a sufficient replacement for traditional in-classroom learning.”

Heather Deringer, a Camas parent of two high school students and local business owner, agreed with many of Christensen’s sentiments. In another letter read to the school board this week, Deringer said she continues to question the district’s remote-learning approach.

“Kids across the country and around the world in areas with higher case counts — note counts, not fatalities — much higher than ours, have returned safely to in-person learning,” Deringer stated. “I ask what the School Board’s answer will be to my two high school students for failing to provide them with the competitive advantages they started out with and now are without. The fully remote model is simply not sustainable for many of us … Please offer guidance and hope to those of us that would prefer not to withdraw our kids from the district but are seeing no light at the end of the proverbial tunnel and see no option but to do just that.”

Camas schools superintendent Jeff Snell told board members on Monday that he continues to meet weekly with the director of Clark County’s public health department in the hopes of better understanding the safety and most current research behind returning to in-person learning, but that local COVID-19 transmission rates — which have continued to climb throughout the fall and remain firmly in the “red zone” with nearly double the number of new weekly cases the county needs to hit before school district leaders can even consider moving to a full hybrid model of remote and in-person learning for the majority of their students — are preventing Camas from bringing more students back to the classroom.

“I don’t see (the county) moving into the moderate (rate of transmission this week) and we’re now pressed up against winter break for secondary students,” Snell said, alluding to the fact that, because the district’s and county’s own guidelines for moving into a hybrid model, which requires the county to have low or moderate transmission rates (75 new cases per 100,000 residents) for three consecutive weeks, and a plan to bring elementary school students back first, Camas’ middle and high school students are not likely to see their classrooms before 2021.

Snell urged the community to wear masks and physically distance to help stop the rapidly increasing spread of the coronavirus in Clark County.

“I would ask the community to continue to follow the guidance,” Snell said, showing the board a slide that read, “mask up to open up.”

Washougal parents, teachers question return

Washougal residents Lindsey Fick and Shawna Portner recently told Washougal school board members they felt the district had not done enough to inform Washougal families before bringing kindergarteners back to the classroom for twice-weekly in-person classes.

“We’re wondering why decisions are being made without surveys going out,” said Fick, the mother of two Columbia River Gorge Elementary students. “As we see the number of COVID cases rising in Clark County, why is returning in-person even a possibility? Our feeling is that the (district) should stand out from the rest and keep our community safe by holding off our return until there is a vaccine.”

Les Brown, the Washougal School District’s director of communications and technology, said the school district’s decision to return small groups of students for limited in-person learning is supported by the Washington Department of Health’s decision-making framework for schools.

“We are committed to ensuring that our students with the highest needs, such as students with disabilities, students living homeless and our younger learners, are being supported,” Brown said. “We have a responsibility to consider all of the health and education risks and benefits to children as we make these important decisions about our students farthest from educational justice.”

Fick, however, said she would not allow her children to return to school until they have received a COVID-19 vaccination.

“I’m sure there are many other families in the district that feel the same way,” she said during the Oct. 27 Washougal school board meeting. “I have spoken with other families. I have spoken to staff. There are a lot of people that are very uncomfortable. It’s just really hard, especially for those of us, I myself included, who are high-risk, and any chance of my child bringing something home, we can’t risk it.”

Washougal music teachers Frank Zahn and Anna Breithaupt submitted written comments to the school board during the Oct. 27 meeting and said they will not return to their school buildings for in-person learning, but will continue to teach kindergartners remotely.

Both teachers took issue with the fact that “educational specialists” are expected to work with every kindergartner on a rotating basis while traditional classroom teachers are only instructing small groups of students.

They also said they believed the district’s proposed restrictions on singing and movement during music class sessions would make their jobs all but impossible.

“The priority of the district seems to be student attendance rather than health concerns,” said Zahn, a teacher at Gause Elementary School. “Using the loophole of ‘early learners’ to justify bringing more people into group situations is not good health practice. It is my opinion that we’re not anywhere near where we need to be in order to reopen schools. … There has not been an adequate explanation for returning to in-person instruction of music education at this time.”

Breithaupt added that she doesn’t feel her health and safety concerns are a priority to the district.

Gause Elementary fourth-grade teacher Eric Engebretson, president of the Washougal Association of Educators teachers’ union, stated during the Oct. 27 board meeting that he believed “the school board (should) take any and all action within their collective power to slow down the return of students to buildings due to the recent spike of COVID cases.”

“The main concern is that as more groups return to buildings, there is more risk to students and staff of becoming infected with COVID-19,” Engebretson said. “For some, this is a life-or-death situation. … As cases and deaths rise both nationally and in Clark County, why are we rushing to bring staff and kids back in? If we continue to bring small groups into each building, eventually we’ll have large groups in each building. The decision to bring students in (the) building, especially now, seems counterproductive to slow the spread of the virus.”

Both the Washougal and Camas school districts have made provisions for families who wish to keep their kindergarten students in a remote-only learning environment during this return to small-group, in-person learning.

“This was an important consideration in how school leaders and kindergarten teachers designed the small-group learning,” Brown said.

Brown said that “a few” kindergarten teachers have chosen to not return to the buildings.

“As we’re moving toward in-person kindergarten, hybrid models and things like that, our goal has been to follow the guidance of the medical experts and collaborate with our neighboring districts with the goal of ultimately returning kids back to school,” Washougal school board president Cory Chase said on Oct. 27. “I know there are those in the community who aren’t ready to do that yet, who aren’t comfortable with that. There are those in the community who have been pushing on the district to get back to opening our schools and activities like sports. I think the approach that we’ve taken is the right one – that of offering a choice.”