Administrators at the Washougal-based Riverside Christian School say the private school is “reinventing itself” after a small COVID-19 outbreak in mid-October.
The school closed Oct. 12 after a staff member tested positive for the coronavirus on Oct. 11. Two days later, on Oct. 13, the Clark County Public Health Department reported that two students and another staff member had also tested positive for COVID-19 after being exposed to the virus at the private school.
The school reopened on Oct. 26 after asking staff and students to quarantine for two weeks and implementing a remote-learning program.
Tymothi Wright, the school’s principal, said several family members of students subsequently tested positive for COVID-19, and that staff members who tested positive for the novel coronavirus — which has infected more than 10 million people in the United States and killed over 230,000 Americans in just eight months — have since recovered and returned to in-person classes at the private Christian school.
“When we got notice of the positive cases, I questioned all the things that we had been doing,” Wright said. “I had lots of conversations with the health department because I wanted to make sure (the positive cases didn’t happen) because of something that we weren’t doing, but they said that we were absolutely doing everything right. There wasn’t much more that we could’ve done.”
As of Tuesday, Nov. 10, the county’s data on COVID-19 cases connected to schools showed that, of the seven cases with exposure reported in the school building, four were in Washougal — the two students and one staff members at Riverside, which were reported in October, and a new exposure, this time involving a Columbia River Gorge Elementary School staff member, reported on Nov. 2. The other three county cases with exposure inside a school — at Prairie High School, Heritage High School and Felida Elementary School, in Vancouver in September and October — all involved staff members.
Riverside, a small, private school affiliated with Washougal’s Seventh Day Adventist Church, shifted to remote learning in the spring at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but opted to reopen for in-person learning on Sept. 8, two months before public school districts in the area began bringing small groups of kindergarteners back to the classroom.
The school implemented a series of safety protocols to keep children and adults virus-free.
Classroom chairs are spaced 6 feet apart. Teachers and students aged 5 and older wear masks at all times. Teachers and volunteers routinely disinfect surfaces and objects with a “fogger.” Recess and bathroom break times are staggered, and the stalls and sinks in the bathrooms are designated for separate use, labeled by grade level.
Clark County Public Health recommends schools keep small groups of students together throughout the school day.
“This limits the number of people and the amount of contact an individual has in school,” said Public Health spokesperson Marissa Armstrong. “The ensuring physical distancing of at least 6 feet throughout the day is also important, particularly when students and/or staff are engaging in activities that last more than a few minutes.”
“Of course, consistent use of cloth face coverings and frequent handwashing are important for preventing the spread of COVID-19, and frequent cleaning and disinfecting of frequently-touched surfaces at the school are also important,” said Armstrong.
Schools that have COVID-19 outbreaks do not receive any additional guidance from the county’s public health department, however.
“We just refer schools to the state guidance and encourage them to implement the recommendations outlined for reducing transmission in schools,” Armstrong said.
Wright said she tried to remain calm after learning of the school’s positive cases.
“What was weird was that I wasn’t really stressed out at all,” she said. “I think the parents realize that right now it is a privilege to send your kid to school at all. They understood that they were taking a risk. I understood that we were taking a risk. We all bought into that from the start. No matter how you look at it or what precautions you put into place, there’s going to be risk when you’re sharing the same building with other people.”
Upon returning to the building, school leaders said they re-emphasized safety protocols to prevent further exposure.
“… I notice that somebody has their mask off, and it’s not an official ‘mask break,’ I will remind them to put it back on,” she continued. “Teachers are more diligent about certain things, double-checking, making sure kids don’t get out of their seats without their mask on. The teachers became a lot more relaxed (about the protocols) after a while, which makes sense. But now we’re being more alert and more diligent. We don’t want this to happen again.”
Wright said everyone at Riverside is trying to figure out how to navigate the “new normal” during the pandemic.
“I’m really impressed with the way all the teachers handled that — staying at home, coming back into the classroom, being upbeat, staying positive. And the kids were so excited to be back in school again,” she said.