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Camas hosts town hall on school reopenings

Community members weigh in with questions about safety, logistics of sending students back to classrooms during COVID-19 pandemic

Nearly 100 people participated in a Camas School District town hall Tuesday, Jan. 12, to discuss the district’s new school reopening plans.

District leaders have heard from people on all sides of the spectrum when it comes to reopening schools during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Superintendent Jeff Snell.

“The (school board) constantly gets feedback on this,” Snell said.

Some feel the district’s reopening plans are moving too slowly, harming students’ academics and social-emotional health, while others worry the district’s new plan to offer in-person opportunities for all K-12 by March 1 is moving too fast during a pandemic that has infected nearly 15,000 Clark County residents and killed 154 of them.

“The question is, ‘How are we making decisions about reopening schools?'” Snell said Tuesday. “It starts with (the Clark County Department of) Public Health.”

The Camas School Board has been “very consistent” in using the recommendations from Public Health officials to make decisions about bringing students back to the classroom, Snell said.

The district has brought 20 percent of its student population (about 1,400 students) back to school buildings for some form of small-group learning since summer 2020, starting with students served through individual education plans (IEPs) and working its way up to small groups of kindergarteners in November.

So far, the district has had one “outbreak,” which is defined as two confirmed and connected cases of COVID-19 at a school site, with one student and one staff member involved in an “outbreak” at Skyridge Middle School.

“When you think about all of the students we’ve been serving, it is a testament to the countermeasures and the students and staff following those measures,” Snell told school board members on Monday, Jan. 11, during the board’s online meeting.

Under new state guidelines released on Dec. 16, 2020, the school district has opted to bring all of its students who need in-person opportunities back to its school buildings by the first week of March, even if the community’s COVID-activity rates remain in the “high” red zone, with more than 350 new cases per 100,000 residents over a two-week period and a more than 10 percent test-positivity rate.

Even under what Snell called “the worst-case scenario,” with the county remaining in high COVID-activity levels, most Camas students will be able to return to the classroom for small-group learning. Once the county moves into the “moderate” zone, with 50 to 350 cases per 100,000 residents and test-positivity rates between 5 and 10 percent, the district will begin its hybrid learning model, with students coming in for two days of full instruction.

“The hope is that, as we move away from the holidays, the rates will go down and we’ll find ourselves in that moderate level,” Snell said Tuesday, during the town hall.

The state department of health has recommended not bringing high school students back to the classroom until activity levels drop below 200 new cases per 100,000 residents over a 14-day period, but several Camas School Board members have said they want district leaders to find ways to bring high schoolers, particularly freshmen and seniors, back to the building as soon as possible, even if it is on a very limited, part-time basis.

Under the district’s “worst-case scenario,” under high COVID-activity rates, Camas first- and second-graders will return for small-group, part-time, in-person learning two days a week

starting Jan. 19.

The district would then bring third- and sixth-graders back for similar small-group, twice-weekly in-person learning on Feb. 1, and add fourth- and fifth-graders on Feb. 16.

Feb. 16 also marks the day the district will begin to phase in students in grades 7-12 who have the highest need for in-person opportunities.

By March 1, parents will be able to say if their students in 7th through 12th grades should return for limited, small-group learning.

“If parents determine their student needs some in-person services, then we’re going to do that,” Snell said. “It’s important to be clear that, if we stay in the high COVID levels, we’re not just going to ignore the department of health guidelines, but we will provide in-person opportunities. They will just look different (than a regular day of school).”

Snell said the district hopes to accelerate its reopening plans one COVID-19 cases begin to drop.

Once the county is in moderate COVID levels for two weeks, the district will begin to shift into a hybrid learning model, with students coming in for two days of in-person learning and retaining a remote education model the rest of the week, starting with elementary students and eventually working up to middle and high school students.

The district will enact a two-week “pause” between bringing various grades back for hybrid learning to determine if its countermeasures — implementing a mask-wearing requirement, testing air-exchange rates to ensure proper ventilation inside the classroom, offering hand-washing and hand-sanitizing stations and physically distancing students and staff — are working and that the return to school is not causing COVID cases to spike within schools or the community.

School board members on Monday said they felt comfortable with the new reopening timeline, and Snell said the Camas School District was the only one in Clark County that has established dates for bringing older students back to classrooms.

“Other districts are saying, ‘We’ll wait until the numbers go down,’ but (the school board members) have talked about the importance of (bringing) secondary students back, so that’s why we developed a timeline for (grades) six through 12,” Snell said.

The superintendent has posted a question-and-answer resource on the district’s website to help families, community members and students get answers to nearly 300 questions that have come up in town halls and school board meetings during the district’s reopening discussions.

“Unfortunately, sometimes the answers aren’t the ones (people) want to hear and we recognize that,” Snell said Monday about the question-and-answer resource. “We know people are trying to do the best for their family and our staff are trying to do the best for our students.”

For more information, or to view the school district’s reopening plan and COVID-19 resources, visit camas.wednet.edu.