As Washougal School District Superintendent Mary Templeton walked from the parking lot to the front entrance of Gause Elementary School shortly before 11 a.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 19, a small group of children lined up in front of a physical education teacher near the playground at the back of the building.
The young students wore masks and stayed at least 6 feet away from each other while conducting their exercises. But they were on school grounds, engaging with each other and with their teacher, and not in front of a computer screen.
The school district’s four elementary school buildings opened for in-person instruction to first-, second- and third-graders earlier that morning. The district welcomed fourth- and fifth-grade students back to the school buildings on Monday, Jan. 25.
“Seeing so many of our students returning to in-person learning has been heartwarming,” Templeton said before stepping into Gause Elementary to greet students and teachers on Jan. 19. “Everything is going according to plan. The children have arrived. The teachers have everything prepared, and the classrooms are (set up) safely. As I’m peeking into the classrooms, learning is occurring. We’ve moved past the transition piece.”
Washougal’s hybrid learning model divides students into two groups to reduce the number of learners in each classroom and allow for social distancing. One group gathers for in-person education on Mondays and Tuesdays while the remaining learners go to the school buildings on Thursdays and Fridays. Students in both cohorts participate in remote learning on the days they are not in the buildings.
“Safety is always at the heart of what we do, whether we’re in a pandemic or not,” Templeton said. “Taking care of our students and our staff is at the heart of the educational process, and we are confident that we are following the rules and that we’re prepared. The guidance that we’ve been given (around) the mitigating factors – the hand washing, temperature checks, attestations and social distancing – is really what’s going to keep us safe in schools.”
Although several Washougal parents have turned out to school board meetings in recent months to push for faster school reopenings, not everyone is happy about the district’s decision to implement the hybrid model while COVID-19 rates are still high.
Several Washougal teachers and parents voiced their concerns about the timing and logistics of the plan during a Jan. 14 school board meeting.
“The change in schedule, the lack of consistency and the amount of stress that each of these new initiatives brings to families already struggling is insurmountable,” said Washougal resident Elizabeth Hilt, the mother of a Hathaway Elementary School kindergartener. “I was counting on the ability to continue in this remote learning model until it was safe to return. It seems really frivolous to bring the children back right before the vaccine is distributed. I don’t believe the risk is worth the reward.”
Washougal resident Shauna Portner expressed dismay that students who choose to remain in the district’s impactED remote learning program — including Portner’s son — will have very limited time with their teachers.
“Distance learning is drastically changing for my son and will drop from 19 to 21 hours per week to approximately four hours per week. We are still unsure what my child’s day-to-day (schedule) will look like based on the changes implemented by the district,” said Portner.
Her son, a third-grader at Columbia River Gorge Elementary School, is at high risk if he contracts the coronavirus, Porter said. “Who will help our children with their educational needs? What about their emotional well-being? My son is already feeling very excluded and sad knowing these changes are being made. … All learners need to be thought of as the district moves forward with its plan, and no child should be left behind.”
Washougal resident Jason Ferrier pointed out the United States’ recent record-setting COVID-19 daily death totals and the fact that five Washougal school staff members tested positive for the coronavirus in December.
“We are all growing wary of these precautions and desperately hoping for life to get back to normal,” Farrier said. “But with vaccines available soon, now is not the time to give up and rely on faith that everything will just work out. It’s hard to have faith that the district’s plan is enough to adequately protect people. I don’t see how returning in the height of a pandemic could possibly be the best decision.”
Lyndsey Russell, a first-grade teacher at Gause Elementary, described the district’s hybrid plan as “rushed.”
“A transition to hybrid is an enormous undertaking that takes careful planning and clear communication,” Russell said. “Our administration and supporting teams are working tirelessly to get protocols and plans in place. However, (they simply) did not have enough time to solve all of these critical issues. With three working days left before re-opening, we still have not finalized explicit procedures to follow safety measures, been trained on how to implement cleaning protocol, set schedules with clear transitions to keep cohorts separated or formalized rosters, to name a few. This rushed implementation puts staff and students at further preventable risk.”
Washougal resident Rae Calvary-Reeves said they believe the reopening plan is “poor,” and that the district “can do better than this.”
One week later, as she prepared for the first day of in-person school for so many of the district’s elementary students, Templeton expressed confidence that the implementation of the hybrid model had been thoroughly planned out, pointing out that the school buildings have been open for in-person instruction to preschoolers, kindergartners and students with special needs since June.
“We thought we were going to be able to launch the school year with the hybrid plan, but things changed pretty quickly with the guidance right before we started the school year,” Templeton said. “That’s why the hybrid plan is not a surprise and not new. We’ve been planning for it for months. Today is a big day because we have the most students back in person since we left on March 13. This is a continuation. We have our procedures and our protocols and our routines for safety well in hand, and they’re in place.”