Washougal welcoming middle-schoolers back to classrooms

Jemtegaard Middle School Principal David Cooke hopes move to hybrid learning will help school 'start getting back what it lost'

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Jemtegaard Middle School principal David Cooke, named the Washington State Secondary School Principal of the Year for 2020 by the Association of Washington School Principals, says he is looking forward to resuming hybrid, in-person learning at his school. (Contributed photo courtesy of Washougal School District)

Jemtegaard Middle School has made significant gains in student achievement during the past few years, posting results that have been noticed and honored by several state educational organizations.

Now, Jemtegaard principal David Cooke worries the COVID-19 pandemic will take away the momentum he said the school’s teachers and students worked so hard to generate.

“I am concerned about that,” Cooke said. “We have to start getting back what we lost, and I’m not sure how long it will take. We may be doing a year and a half or two years of catch-up. But the effort will be there. We’re going to give it everything we’ve got.”

That process will begin this week, as the Washougal School District expands its hybrid learning model to include middle-schoolers.

“We are fortunate to be able to welcome the next group back in-person,” Washougal schools superintendent Mary Templeton stated in a news release. “This will be a huge support to our students and their families, and make so much more learning possible.”

Jemtegaard and Canyon Creek Middle School will bring sixth-graders back to the classroom on Thursday, Feb. 11. Seventh- and eighth-graders return to the classroom for hybrid learning on Feb. 16.

“We’ve been trying to make a smooth transition, but to hear that it’s ‘go time’ is exciting. We want to get going and do it right,” Cooke said. “(Canyon Creek principal) Brian (Amundson) and I are busy making sure the kids transition safely and know what to expect, because we know it will be an anxious time. The balance of safety is always important, but it’s also important that the kiddos get back to school and their routines, because we’ve clearly seen the need.”

“I’m excited,” said Amundson, also the principal at Cape Horn-Skye Elementary School. “We started off the hybrid model with the elementary students, and things are going well, and we’re in a good spot to bring the middle-schoolers back. We’re comfortable with the safety protocols, and the kids want to get back into the classrooms.”

The district moved to a hybrid model in its elementary schools in January. Both the elementary and middle school hybrid learning models provide students with two days of in-person learning each week combined with remote learning.

“Brian and I have watched our colleagues on the elementary side go through (a hybrid reopening), and it sounds (like) it’s been successful overall,” Cooke said. “It’s good to see them work the plan and adjust as needed to make sure everything works well. We’re fortunate to watch and follow the examples. When the elementary students went back and things went well, that gave me a lot of hope that we could do this.”

School district officials are following the latest Washington Department of Health guidelines, which include new metrics based on emerging research and data gathered by state and national officials that allow schools to provide increased in-person learning opportunities for students.

“I believe the experts,” Cooke said. “The Clark County Health Department says it’s OK to move forward, and I trust the leadership of the district office. We’ve been consulting with a number of principals in eastern Washington who have told us how they’ve done it, so there’s a lot of expertise that we’ve tapped into. I would’ve been concerned if I hadn’t seen the plans in action, but after seeing other schools do it, I said, ‘We can do that.’ Safety is always No. 1, but if we feel we can (open) safely, that’s what we want to pursue.”

During the past several weeks, Amundson has witnessed the hybrid model at Cape Horn-Skye and learned a variety of things about what is working, what isn’t, and what middle-schoolers can expect once they return.

“The big first thing that I noticed with the elementary is kids how excited are to be here,” he said. “They are having no problems with masks or social distancing. They are so happy to be back with their  friends and teachers, and that’s overriding everything else. We expect it will be the same with the middle-schoolers.”

Washougal middle-schoolers will be divided into two cohorts, separated alphabetically by last name. One group will attend school in-person on Mondays and Tuesdays, while the other group will receive in-person education on Thursdays and Fridays. When they’re not in the classroom, students will watch the lessons from home or engage in pre-recorded learning activities.

“I’m excited for middle-schoolers to participate in simultaneous instruction,”  Amundson said. “With this approach, the kids on Zoom can feel like they’re part of the in-class experience with their peers. That will lend more consistency to their schedules. It will help the teachers as well. It’s a big ask to have the teach kids on Zoom an teach other kids in-person and do an effective job.”

“It’s a big step forward,” Cooke added. “We’re still not out of this. We’re still in the tunnel, but there’s a light at the end of it. This is the first step. There’s hope for parents, hope for kids, hope to get back some sort of normalcy. How can that not help? This has been brutal on everyone, but especially for middle school kids, who really need social support and interaction. Lots of kids struggle with the isolation, so for them to just see their peers again gives them hope.”

The district will continue to offer full-time remote learning options to any student who doesn’t opt into the hybrid model.

“We’re building flexible options,” Renae Burson McMurray, the district’s assistant superintendent, stated in the news release. “Students and families can choose hybrid, but they also have the option of staying in fully remote learning. If they choose remote learning, they’ll still be able to participate in classes each day.”

District leaders can now turn their attention to opening Washougal High for in-person learning. Templeton said in January that, in a best-case scenario, Washougal High students could return for in-person learning in March.

According to state guidance, districts can reopen high schools once the county’s COVID-19 rates decline to an average of 200 new cases per 100,000 residents over 14 days.

“We are appreciative of the steps everyone is taking to reduce the spread of COVID-19, so we are bringing back our middle school students,” Templeton said. “In order to serve more students in our classrooms safely, each of us must wear masks, watch our distance and wash our hands.”