The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has forced Camas and Washougal school district leaders to furlough and reduce hours for hundreds of classified employees.
The furloughs and hour-reductions impact a total of 200 local school district employees — 140 in Camas and 60 in Washougal.
At their Monday night board meeting, Camas School Board members voted unanimously in favor of two resolutions furloughing and reducing hours for school secretaries, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, crossing guards, paraeducators and other classified staff.
“It is very difficult to bring these resolutions forward,” Camas School District Superintendent Jeff Snell told board members Monday. “We are caught in a situation where we are forced to start to shift the way we staff to align with the present system.”
The pandemic has resulted in a completely new way of serving students in both the Camas and Washougal school districts. Students started the year in a remote setting and will transition to a hybrid in-person/online form of schooling before the districts can safely bring students back to the classroom full-time.
Snell said district leaders in Camas had been trying to “hold on and repurpose positions” for the majority of the district’s classified employees until students were back to full-time in-person classes, but that revenue shortfalls and declining enrollment figures have forced the district to reconsider.
“Now we’re in a position where we’re not able to maintain (staffing levels) without some pretty bad consequences in the next budget cycle,” Snell said Monday.
Snell, along with Marilyn Boerke, the district’s director of talent development, and Jasen McEathron, the district’s director of business services, told school board members Monday that they hope to bring the furloughed employees back as soon as possible.
“(A furlough) is a temporary layoff designed to keep our people close,” Boerke said, adding the majority of the furloughed employees will qualify for unemployment and retain their school district benefits during the temporary layoff. “This allows us to pivot quickly. We just call them and they come right back.”
Boerke said the talks she’d had with union leaders representing the classified employees as well as the 36 secretaries impacted by the furloughs, was “heartbreaking.”
“They were shocked, but understood the predicament we’re in,” she said.
Snell said he hoped the furloughs would be short-term, during the 100-percent remote learning phase, with employees called back to work once the district transitions to hybrid and then in-person learning.
“Hopefully … we can ramp up again and call staff back when our needs have changed,” he said.
The district will begin to monitor the county’s community COVID-19 transmission rate on Sept. 21. Once the county has been in the low to moderate range for three weeks in a row, the district will bring elementary students back for a hybrid model that allows students to be in the classroom two days a week. The soonest the district would bring elementary students back for that hybrid model is Oct. 19. The district will wait at least three weeks — to monitor the results of having the elementary students in a hybrid model as well as to track the county’s COVID-19 numbers — before bringing middle and high school students back to the classroom two days a week.
Washougal furloughs 60 classified employees
During their Sept. 8 virtual meeting, Washougal school board members approved a recommendation to furlough 60 part-time and full-time classified employees “who are not, at this moment in time, necessary,” according to superintendent Mary Templeton.
The temporary layoffs were caused by the district’s declining enrollment figures, according to Templeton. District leaders formulated their budget for the 2020-21 school year based on a projected total of 3,010 students, but were forced to make adjustments after the actual numbers came in at about 5 percent less than that.
“The really difficult and complex emotional undertaking of telling folks that are part of our team that we’re going to have to ask them to step to the side a little bit is heart-wrenching (for me), as you can imagine,” Templeton said. “However, the good news is that as we continue as a community to follow the safety guidelines, I believe that we will impact the return of our children sooner than later. As our children come back to us, so then come back our teammates who unfortunately we have to ask to step to the side for a short period of time.”
The district will also incur several unbudgeted pandemic-related expenses to purchase additional personal protective equipment, postage and technology products, according to a news release issued by the district.
“This very difficult decision was made to address budget challenges the district is facing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Washougal School District Assistant Superintendent Aaron Hansen stated in a news release. “School districts receive funding from the state based on enrollment numbers and bus ridership, both of which have declined.”
The furloughed employees will retain their health insurance and can apply for unemployment benefits, Templeton said.
“This was a difficult decision to make, but one that is necessary based on our current enrollment numbers and the financial implications of those numbers,” Washougal school board president Cory Chase told the Post-Record. “Also, with students not in the classroom and teachers working remotely, it was necessary to adjust our classified staffing levels to reflect the services we are currently providing. Our staff is working hard to identify students who are not currently enrolled so we can get them the resources and support they need to get enrolled.”
The majority of the furloughed staff members work in the district’s transportation department, but the list also includes library and playground assistants, paraeducators and custodians.
“We’re not transporting students as we typically would this time of year,” Templeton said. “We also have an unfortunate funding model from the state for transportation. I advocate strongly that legislators help us fix the untenable transportation funding model that doesn’t work in a remote learning platform.”
In a statement, Public Schools Union of Washougal executive board members said that they are “disappointed by these temporary layoffs.”
“School bus drivers, security staff and staff assistants provide vital services to students every day, and want to continue providing that same level of service during distance learning,” the union stated. “We do understand that Washougal School District must be fiscally responsible while continuing to fulfill our shared mission of providing a quality education to every student, and look forward to returning to work as soon as it is safe. During this difficult situation, we will continue actively working alongside the district in the same spirit of transparency and collaboration that puts the students of our community first.”