Camas school board pauses reopenings, gives staff time to transition

Officials set new dates: elementary will move to 4 days of in-person instruction on March 22, high schools will begin hybrid learning on March 8

On Monday, Feb. 22, just one week before Camas elementary students were scheduled to return to full classrooms, four days a week, and high-schoolers would have entered a hybrid schedule with twice-weekly in-person classes, the Camas School Board agreed to pause the district’s school reopening rollout to give teachers, staff and families more time to adjust to the swift transitions.

Elementary students will now transition from hybrid to four full days of in-person learning on March 22 instead of March 1. High school students will begin a hybrid model, with two days of in-person learning each week, on March 8 instead of March 1.

“I know a lot of parents have been looking at (March 1), and I’m sensitive to the implications of the delay,” Camas School Board member Doug Quinn said during the Board’s Feb. 22 meeting.

Quinn and other school board members said they wanted to give elementary school staff more time to ensure classrooms can safely accommodate full class sizes with students spaced at least 6 feet apart.

“The challenge is to create a cohort of students that remain together, but maintain our spacing,” Quinn said. “You can’t just fake it and make it work.”

Doug Hood, the school district’s director of elementary education, told board members Monday the district was experiencing some capacity challenges at the elementary level.

“To support our students and our staff, we need to look at classroom configurations,” Hood said. “Those conversations have started … but we also need to understand what our family and student interest is. We need to do a survey of families and that will take some time.”

Camas school district officials established school reopening timelines based on the county’s COVID-19 rates in December 2020. At that point, COVID-19 rates had been steadily climbing for three months and showed no sign of slowing. That plan called for transitions from small-group to hybrid to four days of in-person learning for K-5 students as the county’s COVID-19 rates moved from high to moderate to low.

In January, COVID-19 rates started to drop, moving the county into a more moderate zone, and elementary and middle schools in Camas began the transition from small-group to a hybrid that saw students attending classes in cohorts two days a week. As of Monday, all of the district’s K-8 classrooms were operating in the hybrid model.

The December 2020 reopening plan called for another shift at the elementary level once COVID-19 rates dropped again, with students coming out of the cohorts to attend in-person classes four days a week.

On Monday, Camas School District Superintendent Jeff Snell told school board members the county’s COVID-19 rates have continued to fall throughout February.

“The great news is that we’ve been seeing drops in rates,” Snell said. “We’ve been seeing huge drops of 50-plus over the past few weeks.”

The county’s COVID-19 activity levels fell from 401.2 cases per 100,000 residents on Jan. 25 to 209.8 cases per 100,000 on Feb. 15, and Snell said county public health officials expected this week’s rate to be down to 136.95 cases per 100,000 residents.

“With the drops happening across the region, we’re increasing in-person learning, so that’s great,” Snell said.

The superintendent added that the Camas School District’s COVID-19 countermeasures — including mandatory masks for staff and students, screening for symptoms, distancing at least 6 feet, heightened sanitizing protocols and HVAC changes to help increase airflow inside classrooms — have been effective at preventing the spread of the coronavirus inside Camas school buildings.

“(We have seen fewer) infections in the community with more students in school,” Snell said, “and it’s really because we’re doing those countermeasures with fidelity.”

Hood said teachers, staff and building administrators “have worked extremely hard” to ensure a safe transition to the district’s current hybrid model at elementary and middle schools.

“Moving to another phase will be a heavy lift,” Hood said. “We are not going to compromise on that 6 feet, which is creating a challenge. We’ve figured out how to serve lunch to kids in the cafeteria (while distancing 6 feet). Now, if we move away from our cohort model, we’ll have to figure that out again.”

On Monday, Hood proposed three possible dates for the district’s transition to full classrooms, four days a week, at the elementary level: March 1, the original date set by the school board in December 2020; March 22, the date proposed by many staff members as it would fall after the end of the trimester and transition students on a Monday; and April 12, to transition after Spring Break.

“From conversations with staff, I feel that the March 22 date would logistically make the most sense,” said school board member Corey McEnry. “These 6-foot concerns? There’s no way around it. We’re not going to push on the 6 feet right now … This gives a month, four weeks, to stay in the hybrid model and work some things out … and for teachers to have those honest conversations about ‘this is what we’re going to need to make this work.'”

Other school board members, including Connie Hennessey and Erika Cox, agreed.

“(March 22) is a happy medium,” Hennessey said. “It gives kids and teachers a chance to settle into the hybrid until the end of the trimester. We’re all anxious to get kids in for four days a week … but we can’t make it work if the space in the schools isn’t figured out, and I don’t think we can figure it out in a week, so I think we need to go (with) March 22.”

Cox said she and other board members have heard from a wide range of staff, parents and community members over the past few weeks, and said many elementary school teachers are saying, “please wait and give us a little more time.”

“So I hope elementary professionals feel good about the (March 22) date,” Cox said. “It seems to be in line with what we’re hearing.”

McEnry, who recently attended a legislative meeting for school board officials, said the problem of bringing students back to the classroom while still ensuring the 6-foot distancing rules “is not unique to Camas.”

“Elementary schools across the state are struggling with this,” McEnry said.

‘We want to get these kids back in school’

The school board’s reopening plan approved in December 2020 also called for high school students to begin small-group learning on March 1, and move to a hybrid model, with students separated into cohorts and attending in-person classes two days a week, when COVID-19 rates approached the 200 cases per 100,000 residents level.

Assistant Superintendent Charlene Williams said high school staff members were prepared to begin small-group learning, with students coming into classrooms one day a week, on March 1, but wanted more time to prepare for the transition to the twice-weekly hybrid model.

Williams said staff wanted to re-survey families to see how many students would be interested in returning to the twice-weekly in-person hybrid model.

“For a school the size of Camas High, organizing around those small groups and all the cohorting that goes along with that, takes up to two weeks to just get survey information back so staff can begin to set schedules,” Williams said. “(Staff) are asking for a bit of runway to re-survey families … and make daily schedules.”

Williams said most high school staff would prefer to have two weeks of orientation for students and begin the hybrid learning model on March 15.

School board members said they understood that the transition — and skipping over small group learning for a full hybrid model — might be chaotic, but felt that, as long as the district could bring high school students back safely, Camas high schools should not wait until mid-March.

“There are kids who have been out of school for a year, so I really hesitate to keep pushing it,” Hennessey said. “We want to get these kids in school.”

Hennessey added that, while she sympathized with teachers who have been planning for small group instruction and now face an unexpected leap into the hybrid model, she would like to see high school staff have one week of orientation and begin hybrid learning on March 8.

“We didn’t think we’d be in this position so soon, but we are,” Hennessey said. “It’s a lot to plan, and I’m sensitive to that. But, also, our kids have been out of school for a year, and we need to get them in.”

Other board members agreed.

“If we have safety measures in place on March 8, then I feel we should go for it,” McEnry, who also works as a high school band teacher in the Hockinson School District, said. “Whether we transition on March 15 or March 8, (there will) still be some logistical difficulties in any transition.”

Parents, teachers speak out on school reopenings

School board members in Camas said Monday they continue to receive calls and emails from parents, teachers, school staff and other community members who have strong views about the district’s school reopening plans.

“I received 19 emails from teachers just over the weekend,” Hennessey said Monday. “There (seem to be) two camps. With some elementary teachers saying ‘slow down the move from hybrid to four-days a week,’ and high school (teachers) saying ‘either slow down until we’re vaccinated or spend more time in small groups before hybrid.’ And then there are the ‘let’s go’ letters from parents saying, ‘hurry up’ because of the social-emotional impacts.”

“We’ve never heard so much from teachers and staff in the district,” Hennessey added. “We all need to be aware of the different impacts on all of these groups — on our teachers and the fact that our kids are really, really suffering, so it’s important to get them back in the classroom.”

McEnry agreed, and thanked everyone who has reached out to Camas school board members over the past couple weeks.

“It’s definitely a tough needle to thread,” McEnry said. “There are no easy answers here, and there are valid arguments and points in every single email I get and every conversation with neighbors and staff that I’ve had.”

Several people submitted public comments about the district’s reopening plans to be read at the Feb. 22 school board meeting.

Some, including Mary Stevens, who identified herself as “a concerned Camas resident and avid supporter of the Camas school levies,” urged the district to slow its school reopening plans.

“I am wondering why you are considering the reopening of Camas High School at this time,” Stevens stated in her letter to the school board. “The added weight on our teachers trying to do both (in-person) and remote classes over the next few months is only adding to their stress/anxiety levels. If they can’t be vaccinated, they should not be put back in the classrooms with teens who could be carriers of this terrible pandemic. These students, more so than younger children, could potentially have jobs outside their homes, be socializing with friends even when they shouldn’t be and could be spreaders even if they themselves do not get sick.”

Stevens added that the COVID-19 variants also are concerning.

“I feel that there is little to no regard for our educators’ lives. If you expect the BEST from our teachers, perhaps you should consider not putting them in harm’s way,” Stevens stated.

Many others, however, said the district should not pause its reopening plan and should push to get students back into the classroom as soon as possible.

Charles Hines, a special education teacher at Liberty Middle School in Camas who has served students in-person since July despite being at high-risk of COVID-19 complications, felt the district was actually moving too slow in reopening its schools.

“I also have two daughters who attend Camas High School,” Hines stated. “On paper they are doing fine, but mentally they need to be in a building with peers.”

“I feel the voice of teachers and staff who support our (reopening) plan has been marginalized,” Hines stated, adding: “You cannot ignore science and data when it makes you uncomfortable or pushes you outside your comfort zone. Schools can (reopen) safely. Period. … We cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Our kids deserve better. They don’t need perfect, they need and deserve the ability to attend school in a building with a teacher more than two hours per week. There is simply no science to be in anything but hybrid right now. Do not pause. Be bold and do what is best for kids.”

Parent Heather Deringer urged the school board to have better communication with high school students and families.

“The lack of clarity and lack of good communication at the high school level is exacerbating the problem that the district created when it chose not to put all students first and failed them this entire last 12 months,” Deringer, the parent of two high school students, stated. “The lack of a clear and cohesive communication with all (high school) families and students is adding to our children’s anxiety, depression and an overall sense of disengagement from their school and community.

“I had high hopes that the community I have been a part of for over two decades would emerge as a leader during this dreadful year, but I’m not sure I can transmit any hope to my children when I have no faith,” Deringer added. “Please act in the kids’ best interests. They are a precious resource that deserve far better than anything they’ve received in the last 12 months.”

To read all of the letters submitted on Feb. 22, visit go.boarddocs.com/wa/cam as/Board.nsf/Public and click on the agenda for the Feb. 22 school board meeting.