As COVID-19 cases drop, Camas ramps up in-person learning

School Board will discuss accelerated reopening plans, including return of high-schoolers, at its Feb. 22 board meeting

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category icon Camas, COVID-19 coverage, Latest News, News, Schools
Kindergarten teacher Marilyn Canfield leads students at Helen Baller Elementary School in Camas on Monday, Nov. 9, the first day of in-person kindergarten classes at the school district since the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered classrooms throughout Clark County in March 2020. (Contributed photo by Doreen McKercher, courtesy of the Camas School District)

With Clark County COVID-19 rates falling from “high” to “moderate” over the past two weeks, the Camas School District is continuing to ramp up its school reopenings and send more students back to the classroom.

“We’ve been in ‘high’ for most of the school year, unfortunately, but ‘moderate’ does open the door to other opportunities,” Camas School District Superintendent Jeff Snell told Camas School Board members at the Board’s meeting on Monday, Feb. 8.

The state’s department of health changed its school-reopening guidelines on Dec. 16, 2020, to allow for more in-person learning, even in counties with more extensive COVID-19 transmission rates.

The new guidelines consider counties to be in the “high” COVID-19 activity level when there are more than 350 new cases per 100,000 residents over a 14-day period and COVID-19 test positivity rates are over 10 percent. The counties enter a “moderate” category when cases are between 50 and 350 per 100,000 residents and the percentage of positive tests are between 5 percent and 10 percent.

Clark County’s COVID-19 activity levels fell from 401 to 310 cases per 100,000 residents between Jan. 25 and Feb. 1, and were expected to fall into the 260-range this week, according to Snell.

State guidelines call for districts to “phase in in-person learning” in the moderate phase, with a priority for elementary and middle school students. If school transmissions remain low, districts can begin to add high school students when case rates begin to head toward 200 cases per 100,000 residents over a 14-day period.

Currently, about 3,100 Camas students — 45 percent of the student body — are receiving some type of in-person learning. The district brought kindergarteners back to the classroom in November 2020 for limited, small-group, twice-weekly, in-person lessons, and added first- and second-graders on Jan. 19.

Last week, on Feb. 1, the district brought its third- and sixth-graders back to the classroom twice a week in small groups of 15 or fewer students.

Because rates have dropped from high to moderate, Snell said the district plans to begin its hybrid reopening model. Students in grades K-3 will move to a hybrid model, with students attending school in larger groups for two full days each week, on Thursday, Feb. 11.

The district also will bring students in seventh and eighth grades back for small-group learning on Feb. 11.

If COVID activity rates remain below 375 cases per 100,000 residents, the district will begin hybrid learning for all K-8 grades on Feb. 22; and, on March 1, move K-5 students to four days a week of in-person learning and bring high school students back to the classroom for small-group learning.

Camas School Board members had agreed to this schedule in December 2020, but some educators and families have questioned the fast pace of the district’s reopening.

On Monday, the Board heard from two teachers who questioned the district’s reopening plans.

Cathy Sherrell, a kindergarten teacher at Dorothy Fox Elementary School who has been teaching small groups of kindergarteners in-person since November 2020, wrote to the school board to say her classroom is already “at capacity for social distancing” with a group of 10 students attending two days a week and another group of 11 students attending on two separate days.

“It is a surprise to me that it (is) even a possibility that we could be asked to have a full class … in person for four full days a week by March 1,” Sherrell stated in her letter. “When I heard this, I was alarmed and honestly unprepared for this possibility.”

Sherrell said she hopes school board members will reconsider their plans to move forward with the accelerated reopening plan and remain in a hybrid mode, with two cohorts of students after March 1.

“I do not feel safe in a classroom with 21 students and a full school,” Sherrell stated. “Small group hybrid cohorts need to remain in place until all teachers are vaccinated.”

Camas elementary school teacher Kelly Greene also wrote to the school board to express alarm over the planned reopening timeline.

“I am feeling taken advantage of by the school board and district,” Greene stated. “We were forced back in (to the classroom) unvaccinated and many of us, like myself, have underlying health conditions and are not in a financial position to take unpaid leave.”

“This is challenging emotionally and physically for teachers,” Greene stated. “We have to be hypervigilant around the kids wearing masks and staying distanced.”

“Many of us do not feel this is appropriate and it is adding added stress, anxiety and pressure to be all things to all people all of the time,” Greene stated, adding they felt “beyond frustrated, anxious, depressed and worn out.” by the “misinformation and the lack of concern for our physical and mental health.”

Snell said the district is working to get COVID-19 vaccines for its staff, but that the limited vaccine supply remains an issue.

“I meet weekly with (a regional task force) to understand how we can help get staff vaccinated, and help the community,” Snell said. “The biggest challenge is vaccine supply, but we are making progress.”

The superintendent also said the district has shown its COVID-mitigation methods — requiring all students and staff to wear masks, exceeding HVAC standards for recirculating and filtering air inside school buildings, distancing students and staff by at least 6 feet, screening students and staff at the start of each school day, and implementing heightened sanitation procedures inside classrooms and school buildings — have been successful, with only one known COVID-19 transmission (staff to staff) having occurred inside a Camas school building over the past three months.

Comparisons show the Camas School District is on par with many in the region, including Washougal, Evergreen and Vancouver school districts, but has more students in the classroom than many Washington schools. School board member Corey McEnry, a high school band teacher in the Hockinson School District, asked Snell Monday night if the district might need to work through capacity issues for K-5 classrooms before returning to full-day classes four times a week on March 1.

Families can choose to keep their student in remote-only learning during the pandemic. Out of Camas’ more than 1,800 elementary school students, 1,429 are receiving in-person learning part of the week, 368 opted to stay remote, and 74 students in third through fifth grades are enrolled in the district’s fully remote Camas Connections Academy.

Board members are expected to revisit the heightened March 1 reopening plans at their next meeting, which begins at 5:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 22. To learn more about Camas School Board meetings or view the agenda for upcoming meetings, visit