As COVID-19 cases continue to surge in Clark County, school administrators in Camas and Washougal say they are doing everything they can to maintain in-person learning and extracurricular activities.
“I want to highlight the fact that our staff and community are coming together to really figure out what it’s going to take to provide these experiences for our students,” interim Camas School District Superintendent Doug Hood said on Tuesday, Jan. 18.
The district continued to offer on-site testing this week for students and staff who have exhibited COVID symptoms or been identified as a close contact of a COVID-positive individual.
The district’s demand for COVID testing has ramped up substantially since winter break – thanks mostly to the highly contagious omicron variant, which is thought to be able to evade both natural immunity gained from a previous infection as well as much of the protection afforded by the COVID vaccines.
“Before winter break, we were testing 30 to 60 people, aside from athletes (who need to test more often to play high-contact, indoor winter sports) each day at the district office,” said Camas School District Communications Director Doreen McKercher. “On (Monday, Jan. 10), we hit an all-time high of over 400.”
The district has seen a substantial increase in the number of students and staff who are testing positive for COVID this month. During the first month of January, the school district recorded 331 COVID-positive students and 29 COVID-positive staff members. Between Jan. 9 and Jan. 16, the Camas School District recorded another 289 students and and 23 staff who have tested positive for COVID-19.
Hood said the district averaged 268 COVID tests a day last week, with daily test-positivity rates between 12 percent to 24 percent. As of Tuesday, Jan. 18, Camas students and staff were continuing to show up en masse for COVID tests.
“We definitely had a big surge this morning,” Hood said on Tuesday, Jan. 18. “We had a line of cars at Doc Harris.”
The district had been testing all students and staff at the Zellerbach Administration Center headquarters, but recently moved its COVID testing operation to Doc Harris stadium. There, students and staff who require a COVID test can stay in their cars until they’re called to one of the stadium’s concession stands for a quick nasal swab.
Hood said most people – about 99 percent – have opted to receive rapid, antigen tests, which provide nearly immediate results.
“They get the results very quickly,” Hood said. “The rapid tests give people results in 10 to 15 minutes, via a text on their phone.”
The high number of COVID-positive students and staff reflect a substantial increase in community transmissions. On Jan. 13, Clark County Public Health officials said the county’s COVID transmission rate had skyrocketed to 1,679 cases per 100,000 residents – six times higher than the 263-per-100,000 rate recorded the week before Christmas, and more than double the 715-per-100,000 rate recorded on Jan. 6. Likewise, new COVID hospitalization admission rates climbed from 7.0 per 100,000 residents the first week of January to 11.8 per 100,000 on Jan. 13. The county also recorded 14 more COVID-related deaths last week, including two men in their 30s; one man in his 50s; three women in their 60s; two men and one woman in their 70s; and two men and three women in their 80s. Unvaccinated individuals continue to represent the majority of COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths in Clark County.
Despite the rapid rise in COVID transmissions this month, Hood stressed that Camas schools, which require masking and other COVID mitigations, have continued to avoid in-school COVID outbreaks.
“We continue to say that schools are some of the safest places that our students can be right now … with our mitigation strategies, we’re continuing to do a good job for our students and staff,” Hood said. “We have been consistent from the get-go that the correct use of a mask is extremely important (for preventing COVID transmissions), and we continue to have that message going out to the community, to students and staff.”
Hood said the Camas district is “cautiously optimistic” its COVID testing supplies will be adequate to meet the demands of the current omicron surge.
“As a region, we’re trying to work really hard to make sure we can figure this out as a group,” Hood said, giving credit to staffers from the regional Educational Service District (ESD) 112, who recently secured thousands of COVID tests from the state’s K-12 supply.
The superintendent said the district is feeling the stress of the recent COVID surge, and continues to monitor its schools buildings, as well transportation and custodial services on a daily basis to find ways of coping with temporary staffing shortages.
“If we need to provide staffing for a building, we go in and support those buildings,” Hood said, adding that district staff have been filling in where needed – doing everything from monitoring hallways during class transitions to teaching classes.
“We’re like every school district in the county,” Hood said, noting that local school districts were having trouble finding substitute teachers even before the omicron surge.
As of Wednesday, Jan. 20, the Camas School District had 88 absent staff members, including at least 10 who had tested positive for COVID-19, according to the district’s communications director.
Other staff members were able to take up the slack and keep Camas schools open for students.
“Principals are teaching. Specialists in the building are teaching … I think our staff has done a tremendous job of taking on tasks that are not in their job description,” Hood said. “It’s exciting to see what can happen when we mobilize and work together.”
Hood said he continues to have faith the omicron surge will soon subside.
“The thing that is so different about omicron is that it is so rapid and quick. I think this week will be very telling for us,” Hood said. “We have hope that we might (soon) be in a different place.”
‘Mitigations have worked’ says Washougal superintendent
The Washougal School District’s recent staffing shortages have forced Superintendent Mary Templeton into a temporary new role..
“Substitute teaching is on my schedule for the month of January,” said Templeton, a former high school German teacher. “I still have my teaching certification, it’s still valid and I can still get into the game. I, of course, am a little bit nervous for them to let me know that (I’ll have to go to a) kindergarten classroom, where I don’t have as much experience. But give me any high school class and I’m confident and ready to go.”
District leaders are “closely monitoring the impacts of the omicron variant of COVID-19” in Washougal but have no immediate plans to transition back to a remote learning format despite a recent spike in positive cases among student and staff members.
“We are planning to stay open,” Templeton said. “The complexities and challenges for us, clearly, are making sure we have enough staff to safely transport students to and from school and make sure we have enough staff to manage classrooms and hallways. We are going to continue to problem-solve with a No. 1 focus on keeping our schools open.”
In a message to families posted to the district’s website on Monday, Jan. 11, district leaders wrote that while they “do not anticipate having to transition to fully remote learning,” they believe that “it is possible that classrooms or schools may experience intermittent disruptions.”
“And we think if that was the case, it would certainly be short-term,” Templeton said. “We have every contingency plan that one could think of — we’ve either already done it or put it on the backburner or we know how to do it. I think it’s wise for us to be prepared for all contingencies. At the same time, our No. 1 priority — and we are being successful — is to keep moving forward with schools open.”
The district reported 65 COVID-19 cases (51 students, 14 staff members) between Thursday, Jan. 6 and Thursday, Jan. 13, compared with eight cases between Monday, Dec. 6, and Monday, Dec. 13.
“We’re seeing cases in students and staff on a daily basis, some days more than others,” Templeton said. “We would anticipate that we’ll continue to see that as we get through the next couple of weeks. Per the scientists of the world, we’re hopeful that we’re going to reach a peak within the next couple of days and hopefully have a pretty quick downward slope. That means that we’re still going to be working through this for a couple of weeks.”
The district is recruiting candidates for certified and classified substitute positions, and preparing district office staff members who have teaching certificates to work as substitutes in classrooms over the next few weeks, according to its website.
The district has also reached out to parents who have, but aren’t currently using, teaching degrees, as well as recent Washougal High School graduates about potential job openings; and added four recent “graduates” of transportation director David Tsao’s commercial drivers license training sessions, Templeton said.
“We have had some days when we don’t have enough teachers and paraeducators to fill up our classrooms, but everybody has done everything humanly possible to make sure our children are able to come to school and that we continue the educational process here,” Templeton said. “We’ve got principals covering classes. Teachers are figuring out creative strategies and sacrificing some of their own planning time to help out. And a lot of us in the district office were teachers at one point, so we’re all on the docket as well.”
The district continues to receive steady shipments of COVID-19 tests from the state of Washington and offers free on-site testing for students who experience symptoms while at school.
The district’s “Test to Stay” program allows qualifying students to attend school, school-related extracurricular activities, athletics, and child care during their quarantine period if they participate in serial testing or “modified quarantine,” according to the district’s website.
“We are well-positioned for the testing regiment that’s occurring right now,” Templeton said. “There’s a lot of testing going on, and we think that’s a good thing because it allows children and staff to continue to be at school. In Washougal, we’ve had enough supply. Not everybody can say that, but we feel very fortunate and blessed to have enough testing supply. Our families are thankful and our staff members are thankful. We’ve been thoughtful, and I think we got lucky.”
Templeton said the district’s mitigating strategies, such as washing hands, universal masking and social distancing, “have worked,” and that she has not seen strong evidence that “kids are spreading (COVID-19) or contracting it at schools.”
Twenty-nine of the district’s 305 cases since the start of the 2021-22 school year have involved transmission at schools, according to the district’s website.
“Schools have not been the place where COVID has been spread,” Templeton said. “Currently, we have a lot of spread in our community, absolutely. That means you’re probably going to have some in schools, and we do. But the good news is that we know what to do about it. We’ve had two years of practice, and I think we do it well. We’re surviving and looking at every day as a gift and blessing and planning for tomorrow.”