Kindergarteners heading back to classrooms

Camas, Washougal districts set to bring back part-time in-person learning for youngest K-12 students on Nov. 9

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Preschool teacher Brittni Nester (left) talks with Gause Elementary Principal Tami Culp on Sept. 29. The Washougal School District began to offer in-person classes to preschoolers in mid-September and will bring kindergarteners back in November.

The area’s youngest K-12 students are headed back to the classroom in early November. 

Nine Clark County school districts, including those serving Camas-Washougal students, announced Monday, Oct. 26, that they plan to transition kindergarten students back to the classroom “in the coming weeks.” 

In Camas and Washougal, kindergarteners will attend small-group, half-day, in-person classes twice a week starting the second week of November. 

“The situation is very different than it was in March,” Camas School District Superintendent Jeff Snell told Camas School Board members at their board meeting on Monday, Oct. 26. “We know more (about the COVID-19 coronavirus). Situations and research have changed.” 

Snell pointed the board members toward a recent study that showed “schools are not superspreaders, but tend to reflect the community spread (of COVID-19).” 

Clark County school district leaders had been sticking to metrics unveiled this summer, which said schools would bring elementary school students back for a hybrid of remote and in-person school once the county met certain indicators, including a community COVID-19 transmission rate under 75 people per 100,000 residents for three consecutive weeks. 

A fall return to school looked likely in mid-September, when the county was still in the “moderate” zone for coronavirus spread. The numbers started to creep up the third week of September, bumping the county into the “high” zone, with more than 75 cases per 100,000 residents. On Sept. 21, the county showed 76.15 cases per 100,000. The number has only increased this fall, with a reported 123.85 cases per 100,000 residents as of Oct. 26. 

Even though the school district leaders say they are still sticking to the public health metric of three consecutive weeks under 75 cases per 100,000, they have been able to offer limited, small-group, in-person education for their most vulnerable students — including special education students and those experiencing homelessness — since summer. The state of Washington’s COVID-19 guidelines allow schools to open for these types of small-group classes, even in counties like Clark County that show high community rates of the coronavirus. 

“We have been serving small groups since the summer and have had some great success with it,” Snell told school board members Monday. “We haven’t had any transmission of the virus. The staff has been doing an awesome job following the mitigation strategies.” 

Preparing to welcome the ‘kinders’

While both the Camas and Washougal school districts plan to bring kindergarteners back to the classroom the week of Nov. 9, the districts’ plans for resuming in-person kindergarten learning are slightly different. 

In Washougal, the kindergarten classes will be divided into four groups with five to six students in each group, said Washougal schools superintendent Mary Templeton. 

The Washougal kindergarteners will continue to meet with their teachers via videoconferencing in the morning and come to school from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. two days a week, and the district will bus students who need it.

“Our kindergarten students need the most support to access their learning,” Templeton told the Post-Record. “Their first year in the classroom sets them up for success in future years and focuses on learning routines, self-management and having great interactions with peers and adults (who support) their learning.” 

Safety precautions in the Washougal district include temperature check s and symptom screening at home; with physical-distancing, required mask-wearing and hand-washing at school. 

“Staff will be doing additional cleaning and disinfecting through the day … and there will be limits on outside vendors to school sites and increased ventilation to bring in fresh air,” Templeton said. 

In Camas, the kindergarteners will be grouped into two cohorts, with Cohort A attending in-person classes from 8 to 11:45 a.m. on Monday and Tuesday and Cohort B attending in-person classes from 8 to 11:45 a.m. on Thursday and Friday. The district will provide transportation for students who need it and will send a “grab and go” lunch home with students. Each cohort will have 10 or fewer students. 

Camas School District spokesperson Doreen McKercher said the district felt it was critical to bring their youngest learners back for a hybrid of in-person and remote learning because the first year of K-12 school is a foundational year. 

“This is such an important year for our youngest learners and developmentally there are opportunities we just can’t replicate in a remote environment,” McKercher told the Post-Record. “We know that executive function skills, such as paying attention and regulating emotions, can be developed and deepened in a classroom setting. These skills are critical for success in school and life. Social-emotional growth can thrive from peer relationships and shape the ability to interact and problem solve.”

Like Washougal, the Camas district will require a few precautions to protect against COVID-19 transmission, including the “consistent and correct use of masks” as well as hand-washing, cleaning and disinfecting the classrooms and buildings and physical distancing “to the largest extent possible,” McKercher said. 

The district does have a remote-work option for staff who are at higher risk or who live with vulnerable family members “as long as remote work exists,” McKercher said, adding that “there are several types of leave available, including taking a leave of absence if no remote work is available.” 

Both districts say they will follow the county’s process for notifying families and identifying close contacts in the event of a positive COVID-19 case within a school building. Everyone identified as a close contact to a person who has tested positive will be asked to quarantine at home for 14 days.

“We are excited about the opportunity to bring these small groups of students back and to make sure this is done safely,” Templeton said. “We are confident that the safeguards we have in place will keep students and staff safe. Our kindergarten students will benefit greatly from this time in-person with their teachers and peers, and this will be a tremendous boost to their learning.” 

Camas families have mixed reactions

While many kindergarten families seem willing to support the return to small-group, in-person learning, others said they were alarmed by the sudden move to bring students back while the county’s COVID-19 numbers are trending upward. 

“With the current county community spread case numbers on a steady upward trajectory, this time seems to be the least prudent time to bring anyone back, even to only meet in small groups,” Amy Linder, a Camas parent, wrote to Camas School Board members this week. 

Linder added that, as the mother of two young children, she understands concerns about social and emotional health. 

“I have certainly seen the impact on our family (from) staying home and staying safe for well over seven months,” Linder told the board members. “I would ask though that you consider the long-term social and emotional health of the students who will lose parents or caregivers due to bringing groups of people back together prematurely. … How will we support students and staff who lose teachers, administrators or staff?” 

The school districts do intend to allow a remote option for families who feel uncomfortable sending their kindergarten students back to the classroom, but Linder said that is setting families like hers up for more disruption.

“Families such as ours, who do not feel that returning to buildings is a safe thing to do, are having to deal with even more disruption and disappointment as our kids are told about others returning to buildings,” Linder said. 

Other parents, however, have lobbied school officials to reopen the schools sooner than planned. 

Sarah Christensen, the mother of a third-grader, eighth-grader and high school junior in the Camas School District, wrote to Camas School Board members this week, urging the board to bring older students back sooner rather than later. 

“My feeling is that the majority of families would feel comfortable forgoing the state metrics and planning on a quicker return for our district,” she wrote. “I’m asking that the board acknowledges their duty to those who elected them, and looks to the district community to aid in a decision specific to the community that they serve. We want our kids back in school. We know it can be done safely, and we know that time is of the essence.”