Camas School District officials said this week they are committed to maintaining in-person learning amid surging COVID-19 infections — fueled by the highly contagious omicron variant — that have led to staffing shortages and student absences throughout the region and prompted a return to remote learning in several Vancouver-Portland area schools.
“In-person is our priority,” Camas School District’s interim superintendent, Doug Hood, told Camas School Board members on Monday, Jan. 10.
The district may still need to implement remote learning for a particular classroom or school building if the virus continues to impact teachers and other employees.
“It will come down to staffing,” Hood said, adding the current surge has already impacted Camas school staff.
“Everyone is leaning in to this situation … and we do ask our community to understand what is happening right now,” Hood said, adding that principals and central office staff have been trying to fill in for teachers and classified employees impacted by the current COVID surge.
“An example is the transportation office,” Hood said. “The limited office staff of three to four people — they’re all driving buses right now. Talk to any teacher or principal — the reality is that everybody is trying to cover. There’s exhaustion and people are just rolling up their sleeves.”
District ramps up COVID-19 testing for students, staff
Hood said the number of staff and students who have been identified as close contacts of a COVID-positive individual or are showing COVID symptoms also is surging right now.
The district conducts COVID tests on these students and staff in a central office building. Prior to the winter break, the highest number of COVID tests conducted in one day at the Camas School District’s testing site was 63, he said.
On Monday, Jan. 10, just one week after students returned from winter break, the district tested 406 students and staff and had a test-positivity rate of 18 percent.
“We’re doing everything we can to continue testing,” Hood said.
The district has ramped up its testing capabilities as much as possible, doubling the number of testing stations from two to four, the superintendent said, but is constrained by the number of tests available and the number of staff who can perform the tests.
Camas is in better shape than other districts, Hood added.
“Other districts around us have run out of tests,” he said Monday, “but Carol on our team got ahead of things so quickly, we have enough tests to continue to provide this (service) for students and staff (who are close contacts or showing symptoms).”
Hood said the district recently received a Return to Learn grant for $160,000 that will help fund temporary classroom staffing positions and maintain its in-person learning during the omicron surge.
Hood added that every age group seems to be impacted by the current COVID surge.
“Elementary to high school – it doesn’t matter as far as absences (are concerned). Percentage-wise, it’s pretty similar,” he told school board members, adding that Monday’s line for COVID testing included everyone from the district’s youngest students in pre-Kindergarten through seniors in high school.
Governor prioritizes in-person learning in WA’s K-12 schools
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said Jan. 5, during a press conference, that he would like to see Washington schools continue to provide in-person learning as long as possible.
“Students have lost too much already during this pandemic. Over the coming months, some classrooms may have to close. We will have to soldier through some frustrations, and I believe we will do that successfully,” Inslee said. “That is why we are focused heavily on making sure tests, masks and vaccines are readily available for our school staff and students.”
The governor also praised school staff and teachers.
“I would also like to reiterate my gratitude for how educators have handled and are still managing the challenges created by the pandemic. You all have made it possible for students to successfully return safely and we want them to stay there,” Inslee said.
Beginning this month, the state is launching an online portal to help distribute one million COVID tests to Washington schools.
The governor encouraged Washingtonians to get vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19, order tests through the state’s portal – which will also distribute millions of free tests to Washington households through a partnership with Amazon and Care Evolution – and to wear masks that have been shown to better protect against COVID, including N95 and KN95 masks to help stem the current COVID surge.
“Having as protective a mask as we can is one of the most important tools in our fight against COVID, but certain masks are much more protective,” Inslee said. “(Protection is) significant from N95 or KN95 (masks).”
Those who do not have access to these higher-protection masks could layer cloth masks over surgical masks to be better protected from COVID, Inslee added.
“We are going to release about 10 million masks of different varieties in our state supply to schools and local community clinics in the upcoming weeks,” Inslee added.
“It is our firm and stalwart expectation that we will keep our schools open,” the governor added. “There may be disruptions in the future, but we want to minimize those. In-school education is more effective, and we’ve had too much learning-loss already, and there has been some inequities associated with it. That’s why we’re focused on increasing supplies of masks and tests and booster (shots) and making those available to (school) staff and students — to keep schools open in a safe way.”