Rising COVID-19 rates derail classroom return

County posts two weeks of high virus activity; school districts push back plans

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category icon Camas, COVID-19 coverage, Latest News, News, Schools, Washougal
A graphic on the Clark County Public Health website shows COVID-19 activity has entered the "high" category this week, with more than 75 cases per 100,000 residents. To bring students back to the classroom in Camas and Washougal, the county's COVID-19 transmission rate must be in the low or moderate categories, with fewer than 75 cases per 100,000 residents, for three consecutive weeks. (Illustration courtesy of Clark County Public Health)

A recent uptick in COVID-19 cases throughout Clark County means Camas-Washougal students will have to wait at least two weeks longer before returning to the classroom.

School districts in Clark County, including the Camas and Washougal school districts, have agreed to work with Clark County Public Health and use the county’s measurements of low, moderate and high COVID-19 transmission rates as a guide for bringing students back to the classroom.

Once the county has had three consecutive weeks of low or moderate transmission rates — under 75 cases per 100,000 residents — the districts will begin to transition students back into school buildings.

The county was on track for an early October return to the classroom until regional COVID-19 cases started to rise again in mid-September.

On Sept. 21, the county reported 76.15 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents. This week, on Sept. 28, the number shot up to 86.18 cases per 100,000.

Both numbers are in the high-transmission “red zone,” which comes with a recommendation that school districts limit in-person learning for “students who need it most, such as children with disabilities.” Both the Camas and Washougal school districts are currently providing limited, in-person education for students with disabilities.

Camas School Board members expressed dismay over the county’s increased COVID-19 transmission during the board’s meeting, held via Zoom on Monday, Sept. 28.

“It’s disappointing,” said school board member Doug Quinn. “We’re going in the wrong direction.”

Camas School Board President Connie Hennessey agreed, and urged community members to wear masks, stay socially distanced and help drive the community’s COVID-19 cases back down so school district leaders can give the OK for students to return to their classrooms and begin a hybrid in-peron/remote learning model.

“We’ve heard a lot of (people say) ‘Our kids need to go back to normal,'” Hennessey said. “We all need to go back to normal, but the world isn’t normal right now. Even when we bring the kids back to the classroom, it’s going to look different. Back to school doesn’t mean ‘back to normal as we knew it.'”

The Camas School District held a town hall on Tuesday, Sept. 29, to help answer questions about the phased reopening plans.

Camas schools superintendent Jeff Snell said Monday, during the school board meeting, that district leaders are focused on creating a smooth — and safe — transition for students, families and staff, which will not have constant uncertainty over students’ in-classroom status.

The key to getting students back to school and keeping them in either a hybrid or fully in-person learning model lies with the greater Camas and Clark County community.

“If we can have lower (COVID-19) activity in our community, it’s less likely we’ll see some of (that) negative bouncing back and forth,” Snell said. “If we want to get back to in-person sooner, we just need three weeks of moderate (coronavirus activity levels), and then we’ll get back to the process.”

Both the Camas and Washougal school districts plan to bring their youngest students, in grades K-5, back to the classroom first. Once the elementary school students have been in the hybrid model for at least three weeks, the districts will begin to bring middle and high school students back to the classroom for a hybrid of in-person and remote learning.

Camas plans online COVID-19 dashboard to alert community

Snell said Monday that the school district has already had one staff member with a confirmed case of COVID-19.

Once it discovered the confirmed case, the school district went into its planned protocols, Snell said, starting with making sure the staff member was OK and then beginning a quarantine process for people who had worked with that staff member and getting notifications out to the staff member’s school community.

“It happened once for us,” Snell said. “We were able to work through it.”

Once students have returned to the classroom, the Camas School District plans to provide a dashboard on its website to alert the community to any COVID-19 cases within a particular school.

“Parents will worry and we understand that news spreads very fast,” Snell said. “So we’ll push that information out there.”

Snell said Monday he planned to talk this week to other superintendents to see if other school districts in the region might agree to do something similar for their families and communities.

To learn more about the Camas district’s plans for bringing students back to the classroom during the 2020-21 school year, visit d-19/2020-fall-reopening.

Washougal’s ‘safety teams’ prepare buildings for students’ return

Washougal principals are leading “safety teams” to implement proper safety protocols and training procedures in each school building. Lisa Bennett, the district’s longtime athletic trainer and temporary COVID-19 safety coordinator, is assisting those teams.

“(The teams are) going through the buildings, identifying the components of the safety plan that are necessary,” Washougal’s assistant superintendent, Aaron Hansen, said during a Sept. 22 school board meeting. “It is a team effort. We’ve learned that it’s very important that the channels of communication are open. Lisa is supporting our building safety teams and making sure they have the structure and protocols in place for our staff and our students in the near future. She’s very resourceful.”

“(District leaders) knew that I had been proactive to be ready for athletics, so they thought it was a natural fit for me to come in and make sure the buildings were ready for when everybody can be together again,” Bennett said. “Anything we can do right now to pull together with the communities, families, students and staff members in a manner that’s safe, methodical and thoughtful, who wouldn’t want to be part of that?”

With Bennnett’s help, the safety teams are creating social distance in hallways and classrooms, coordinating safety checks, advising students and staff members about personal protective equipment and posting signage, among other things.

“Like anywhere else, we’re trying to follow the basic guidance — washing hands, wearing masks, watching our spacing,” Bennett said. “Classrooms need to be socially distanced, but also have enough room for the teachers and students to do what they want to do. A lot of the time we’re trying to help teachers try to figure out how to use the available space to accommodate their teaching style.”

Bennett and the teams are creating “isolation rooms,” where students who are suspected to have been exposed to the coronavirus or are showing symptoms can go while they wait for their parents or guardians to pick them up.

“In some of the new buildings it’s easier to find a space, but in the older buildings it can be complicated,” Bennett said. “We’re trying to identify the space in each building that makes the most sense. We’re trying to make sure the space has access to a bathroom. Some of the buildings have a location that is really conducive for the school nurse to (access) in addition to managing their own health facility. Each space is a unique puzzle to solve.”

Bennett said the teams have been challenged by the unpredictable nature of their work.

“Every day brings new information, so we’re never quite sure,” she said. “We start to build a plan based on a timeline of when we think things are going to be able to happen, but the (infection) numbers go up or a new aspect of COVID-19 is discovered and we have to change the protocols. I try to not do anything until the last minute to double-check and make sure that we’re not missing any change.”

During the Sept. 22 meeting, Washougal School Board President Cory Chase said that “(a consistent safety plan) for all of the buildings will be important for us.”

“Obviously it’s going to be tough to bring everybody back if we’re not consistent from building to building,” Chase said. “I want to make sure something’s in place for the parents to know that if they have one kid at Gause Elementary School and one kid at Jemtegaard Middle School that they’re going to be doing everything consistently in (both buildings).”

“We are adamant that when we have children and staff members back in our buildings, everybody will be following the safety protocols, procedures and routines (required by the Washington State) Department of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and our local Clark County health officers,” Washougal School District Superintendent Mary Templeton said. “Consistency will be the key. We take safety very seriously, and we understand that we need to make sure that we’re communicating and monitoring the situation.”