New 3-foot rule gives local schools reopening leeway

Area’s public K-12 schools will offer 4 days of in-person learning by April 19

School district leaders in Camas and Washougal say a new COVID-19 social distancing guideline inside school classrooms will allow local elementary, middle and high schools the ability to ramp up in-person learning.

The new COVID-19 safety guideline, handed down in early March by the United States Centers for Disease Control and, soon afterward, by the Washington Department of Health, states that students inside school classrooms can safely distance 3 feet instead of 6 feet.

The Camas school board discussed the new physical-distancing guidelines during an April 1 board meeting and said the new guideline means Camas’ middle and high schools will be able to accommodate more students in each classroom and move to the four-days-a-week in-person learning schedule already happening inside Camas’ elementary schools.

Secondary students will transition to the new schedule on April 19, with Hayes Freedom High School students moving to four days of in-person learning a week earlier, on April 12, said Camas’ assistant superintendent, Charlene Williams.

“The capacity is determined by the physical distancing,” Williams said on April 1, noting that the 6-foot distancing guideline still applies to areas outside the classroom, and that some situations, including certain band activities, call for an even greater distance of 9 feet between students.

Doug Hood, the district’s director of elementary education, said the move to 3 feet of distancing inside elementary school classrooms will allow students to attend their neighborhood schools four days a week and provide more leeway for Camas elementary teachers who want to rearrange their classrooms.

“They could bring back some teaching stations or reading rugs, if they want to,” Hood explained.

Williams said she and other district leaders have been meeting with secondary staff to help them prepare for the move from 6 feet of distancing to 3 feet, and addressing teachers’ concerns.

The move will double student capacity in some classrooms, Williams said, and the district likely will need extra staffing support to accommodate the extra students inside of its secondary schools four days a week.

COVID-19 numbers ticking up in Clark County

Camas school superintendent Jeff Snell also warned that COVID-19 transmissions “are starting to creep up” again in Clark County after more than a month’s worth of steady declines.

The slightly higher rates, which have gone from around 90 cases per 100,000 residents to 105 cases per 100,000 residents over the past two weeks, are “of some concern” Snell said on April 1. “Hopefully we will all follow (COVID-19 safety measures) and not see our rates creep up anymore.

District leaders agreed at the April 1 meeting that they would like to keep Camas students in school, even if COVID-19 transmission rates start to climb toward the state’s guideline of 200 cases per 100,000 residents as a cautionary number for secondary students attending in-person classes.

The school board agreed Thursday to take a three-tiered approach to rising numbers, with Snell and other district leaders paying close attention when transmissions approached 175 cases per 100,000 residents or when positive test results, which are hovering around 3 percent now, climbed to 7.5 percent. Snell would become more concerned with the numbers hit 200 or positive test rates went to 10 percent; and would begin to dig deeper into the data once the cases climbed over 225 per 100,000 residents or positive tests increased to greater than 10 percent.

“I would recommend not going back to hybrid until (transmissions) reach 225 and collecting data to bring to you as a board,” Snell said.

Williams added that her conversations with secondary staff members this week pointed to a general consensus that teachers at the district’s middle and high schools also would like to stick with in-person learning as long as possible, even if cases started to rise again.

“They want some consistency,” Williams said. “There seemed to be, in those preliminary conversations, an appetite for continuing with four days (of in-person learning).”

The board members agreed.

“I 100-percent agree,” said board member Erika Cox. “I don’t want to yo-yo, and I appreciate the conversations with staff to get their feedback.”

Washougal will move to 4 days inside middle, high school classrooms on April 19

The Washougal School District announced last week that it also plans to expand in-person learning. The district will offer four days of in-person learning at its middle and high schools on April 19.

“We are working with teachers, staff, administrators and public health officials to ensure we can provide safe learning environments for larger numbers of students,” Washougal School District Superintendent Mary Templeton stated in a news release. “Staff will be working over the coming weeks to implement protocols for areas where the 6-foot social distancing rule still applies, like during lunch and passing time, and in some classrooms where students are exhaling more frequently such as physical education, choir and band. All district staff will have had the opportunity to be fully immunized by that time.”

Washougal’s middle- and high-school students will continue to learn remotely every Wednesday, “which provides time for teachers to plan lessons and make contact with students who are not able to return to in-person learning at this time,” according to the news release.

“Our goal is to continue to provide service to both in-person hybrid and fully remote students this way through the end of this school year,” Templeton said. “We are also committed to providing the least amount of disruption to our students and families as we make this last transition for the school year.”

The district announced in March that it will begin to offer four days per week of in-person instruction to elementary school students on April 12.

“To keep students in school, all of us must wear masks, watch our distance, and wash our hands,” Templeton said. “Health officials studying the spread of COVID emphasize these simple, but critical steps in our daily lives to be able to take next steps in our reopening.”

Templeton said district leaders “plan to offer five days (per week) of full-time, in-person learning for students in grades K-12 unless they are enrolled in the new online Washougal Learning Academy” for the 2021-22 school year.