On Oct. 1, Skamania County health officials tested 88 Mount Pleasant School District students and parents for COVID-19. All of the results came back negative.
The testing was a crucial component of the school’s plan to reopen its building for in-person instruction after five weeks of distance-learning.
“In one way, the (negative results) are a positive sign,” said Ray Griffin, the rural Washougal school district’s superintendent and Mount Pleasant School principal. “We know it doesn’t guarantee anything, but it shows the extent the community is willing to go through to ensure safety.”
The school began its phased reopening plan on Oct. 5.
In the first phase, kindergartners, second-graders, fourth-graders and some middle-schoolers will be in the building from 8:15 to 11:30 a.m. on Mondays and Tuesdays; and first-graders, third-graders, fifth-graders and some middle-schoolers will be in the building from 8:15 to 11:30 a.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
On Fridays, all students will attend online classes.
“We are cautiously optimistic about our plan for a limited start,” said fourth- and fifth-grade teacher Carol Dinnel. “The use of a hybrid blend will allow us to closely evaluate as we move forward and make any necessary adjustments. Our families have been supportive, and we’ve had good online attendance, but the input we’ve received from families is that most families are very ready to have their students back in the school building for in-person learning.”
The K-8 school can provide in-person learning because of its small size, according to Griffin. Mount Pleasant has 65 students and 10 staff members.
“We’re lucky,” Griffin said. “Other school districts can’t do what we can do when they have thousands of kids in multiple buildings. From the start, we all felt that because of our size we had so many advantages over big districts. I don’t mean to say anything bad about big districts. We’re just a different animal.”
“The small size of our school is an advantage in this situation because student group sizes are small enough to make social distancing easier to manage,” Dinnel added.
School leaders hope they will be able to implement second and third phases to allow more students back in the building for longer periods of time later in the school year, but Griffin isn’t optimistic that will happen.
“This (pandemic) won’t end next week or next month,” he said. “At this point, we’re prepared for this to last all year. We originally thought that we’d get through the fall, get to Thanksgiving, and maybe things would be back to normal. But nobody thinks that now.”
“In another time, another world, or in different circumstances, I’d say schools should have taken half the year, or the entire year, off,” he continued. “The day is coming when a child is going to be really sick, and people are going to wonder if it was worth it to have school.”
The school district says it has implemented 25 new procedures and policies to ensure the safety of students and teachers. Students and teachers are required to undergo temperature checks before entering the building and wear masks once inside. Staff members regularly clean the building when students go outside for recess or leave for the day. Students aren’t allowed to “mix” with children from other grade levels, hug or high-five or share food.
“I think the safety protocols are thorough, and in theory, provide safety,” he said. “However, we all recognize that it will be challenging to enforce all the protocols, all the time, with groups of young children.”
In addition, students are required to present attestation forms, signed by their parents, before entering the building every day, a “significant challenge,” according to Dinnel.
“We realize that this ‘new normal’ is basically unknown territory,” she said, “but we have a very dedicated staff, and we have worked hard to think through, and prepare for, the situations we can anticipate.”
“We’ve had great cooperation from the parents, board members and teachers,” Griffin added. “They’ve been communicating well, and have a good attitude. I’m really lucky — I’ve got a good community and a supportive board. But if somebody told me it was going to be like this, I would’ve retired.”