While most Camas-Washougal families with K-12 students returned to five full days of in-person instruction this week, some have opted to remain remote.
“It’s safer,” said Fernanda Titcomb. “And I work from home, so I can be there with them.”
Titcomb, a Camas mother of two young children — 6-year-old Santiago, a first-grader and 9-year-old Anela, a fourth-grader — said she worried about her children’s health in light of rapidly escalating COVID-19 rates and hospitalizations in Clark County this summer.
“The hospitals are filling up, so where would we go if they get sick?” she said.
With no way to have her children vaccinated against COVID-19 since children younger than 12 are not yet eligible for the COVID vaccines, Titcomb had opted instead to enroll Anela and Santiago in the Camas School District’s fully remote option — Camas Connect Academy.
On Tuesday, Aug. 24, dozens of families filed into the district’s Zellerbach Administration Center to meet with Camas Connect Academy staff and collect their students’ school supplies, including the Chromebook Connect Academy students will rely on throughout the 2021-22 school year.
Daniel Huld, the Connect Academy’s new principal, said he’s been talking to families who have either already enrolled in the remote school or are interested in learning more about the Connect Academy.
Most, Huld said, are concerned about the pandemic’s impact on their children and families.
“We have two groups of people — one group who really want an online school, who would be with us, COVID or not, and another group whose main concern is COVID,” Huld said. “There are two fields of ‘COVID families’ — those who are concerned about the delta variant and those who don’t want their kids wearing a mask.”
Connect Academy staff are building a program that will meet the needs of all students, regardless of their family’s reasoning behind enrolling in the remote school, Huld added.
The remote school kicked off in 2020 to provide more stability for families who wanted their students to remain remote when their neighborhood schools moved to a hybrid of remote and in-person teaching. District leaders decided in early 2021 to keep the Connect Academy going, even after the pandemic ended.
“The world changed during the pandemic and many families realized that online learning fits their lifestyle or worked really well for their students,” the district states on the Connect Academy website. “Camas Connect Academy will be around for a long time to … serve digital learners.”
The Connect Academy had a high level of student engagement during the 2020-21 school year, with nearly 89 percent of students regularly attending their online classes and just 15 percent of students reporting more than two absences per month.
Huld, a Camas native and graduate of Camas High School, moved back to his hometown in 2011, with his wife, Karah Huld, a preschool music and dance teacher, and the couple’s now 11-year-old twin daughters, Adalie and Ava. Having served as an administrator of virtual charter schools in Oregon for 13 years and as the president of the Oregon Digital Leaders Coalition, Huld lent his expertise to the Camas School District in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic caused school districts throughout Washington state to pivot from in-person to remote learning. When former Camas schools superintendent Jeff Snell reached out to Huld in January 2021 to ask if he’d be interested in heading the new Camas Connect Academy, the Camas father and digital learning enthusiast jumped at the opportunity.
“It was my dream come true,” Huld said. “I loved my staff in southern Oregon, but Camas is my home, and I’m excited to be more local and get to be a part of this community.”
Huld said his hope for the new Camas Connect Academy is that it will help serve the Camas families who have longed for an alternative to in-person schooling that was not a complete departure from the school district.
“Even though this is a new program, I’m trying to bring in the right people, with the right experience, and build something that’s lasting for families in this area who have wanted an online school but haven’t had that option,” Huld said.
Connect Academy students will still have access to a variety of extracurricular and athletic programs at their neighborhood schools, and elementary students can even attend in-person music classes at Lacamas Lake Elementary School.
Though the Connect Academy’s program offers more flexibility for families, students in middle and high school grades will have a more flexible schedule than elementary students, who are expected to be on Zoom with their teachers and classmates every school day from 8 to 11:30 a.m. before elementary teachers break into one-on-one and small group sessions for elementary students who need extra support during the afternoon hours. At the middle and high school levels, students are more independent — checking in with their teachers for advisory visits but with the ability to plan their school schedules around the times of day that work best for them and their family.
“The 6-12 environment is a little more flexible, and more focused on advisory visits with teachers,” Huld said.
The Connect Academy’s more accommodating schedule was what drew 14-year-old Sophia Johnson to the new school. A ninth-grader who was homeschooled prior to signing up for the Connect Academy, Johnson said she has been taking figure-skating lessons since she was 7 years old, and liked the fact that the new remote school will not make her choose between schoolwork and her athletic pursuits.
“I like the flexibility,” Johnson said.
Bre-Ann Richardson, the Connect Academy’s counselor, came to the remote school after working at Camas High School for the past five years. She said the new remote academy is ideal for students like Johnson, who “enjoy being able to work at their own pace and … build a schedule that works for them.”
And though many Camas families said during the 2020-21 school year that their students needed to be back inside school buildings and around their peers for the sake of their social-emotional health, Richardson said she has found that many Connect Academy students have a rich social life outside of school.
“A lot of our families and students are still connected to their community through extracurriculars and athletics, or church,” Richardson said. “And we will have some opportunities for students to log on and be together and interact.”
Camas Connect Academy students also can choose to participate in in-person activities such as robotics clubs, in-person band and music classes and play high school sports through Camas High.
“As our school grows, we will have more of those types of opportunities,” Richardson said.
Heading into the Connect Academy’s first year as a dedicated school, Richardson and Huld said they’re excited by the possibilities the remote academy provides for students, families and educators.
“I’m excited because we get to be really innovative in the ways we meet the needs of our students and families,” Richardson said.
The enrollment deadline for Camas School District students already enrolled in their neighborhood school but hoping to enroll in the Camas Connect Academy for the current, 2021-22 school year, is Friday, Sept. 3. For students not currently registered with the Camas School District or for those who are homeschooled, the deadline for enrolling in the Connect Academy is Oct. 15.
For more information about the virtual school, visit camas.wednet.edu/schools/cca.