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News / Clark County News

Questions wait to be answered as school year looms in Clark County

Unknowns remain amid pandemic for parents, teachers and students

By Katie Gillespie, Columbian Education Reporter
Published: August 23, 2020, 6:05am

It was only a few months ago that state officials were offering an optimistic picture of the upcoming school year: students back in class, activities beginning again and some semblance of normalcy returning for Washington families.

Instead, it’s back to virtual classrooms for more than 80,000 Clark County students, as area school districts are preparing to continue distance learning in light of growing coronavirus cases.

“If we open up schools too soon, not only will we have more cases in the community, but it’s going to slow us down until we really can open schools longer term,” said Dr. Alan Melnick, director of Clark County Public Health and chief health officer.

State Superintendent Chris Reykdal challenged districts that open remotely to make “Remote Learning 2.0” better than what families experienced in March after the pandemic prompted the abrupt closure of schools across the state.

Clark County school districts

Area school districts have detailed remote learning plans for the upcoming school year. More details are available for the following districts:

How exactly to do that, however, has been left up to local officials. There are still unknowns, even with school starting in little more than a week.

With coronavirus transmission rates showing little sign of slowing, Clark County district officials say a return to the virtual classroom is necessary to keep children and families safe.

“This is our option to do this safely,” Vancouver Public Schools spokeswoman Pat Nuzzo said. “It’s not ideal. It’s what we have right now, and we’ll do our best to support families, too.”

More accountability, more instruction

Fort Vancouver High School graduate Sam Meza values her sleep. So, she admits that her attendance in early-morning video sessions during her last few months of high school wasn’t great.

“I think it was only the first week that I attended all Zoom meetings,” said Meza, who will attend Washington State University Vancouver. “After that, I never attended a Zoom meeting ever again.”

Meza — who clarifies she was still completing her assignments — wasn’t alone. Washington adopted policies preventing schools from lowering student grades or punishing students who didn’t attend class. Standardized tests were waived.

The policy was meant to protect students who couldn’t access virtual learning, but teachers and district officials say some students stopped engaging once they knew their grades were safe and attendance wasn’t required.

That’s over, though.

“There are requirements that students show up,” said Julie Tumelty, Evergreen Public Schools’ director of teaching and learning at a recent school board meeting. “There are requirements that students do stuff.”

Students will be expected to attend class, whether during live instruction or by rewatching recorded classes later in the day. Grades are back, though districts say they won’t be assessing students based on behavior. There’s no indication from the federal government standardized tests will be canceled.

At the same time, districts have pledged to streamline students’ access to education. Rather than forcing students and families to navigate multiple applications, a common criticism about the spring remote sessions, most school districts will create one central hub where students and families can access their coursework.

“There’s going to be more accountability, more instruction, less apps,” Nuzzo said. “Our concern is always meeting the needs of our families, students and our staff.”

Still, Meza urged her former teachers to remain patient with students, even with the expected improvements.

“It’s going to be hard and stressful and difficult for students,” Meza said. “We’ve never gone through online teaching like this. Not everyone is fit for this.”

Unknowns remain

Districts still face a number of challenges headed into the fall. Negotiations are ongoing with some districts’ labor groups to determine when and how staff will return to buildings. Special education teachers are determining how to bring small groups of students back into the classroom for instruction and therapy.

The biggest questions, however, are about district budgets. The state lost nearly $9 billion in revenue because of the pandemic; how that will trickle down to schools is unclear. If families opt to withdraw their students, that could also take a hit on schools, which are funded based on enrollment.

The Longview School District last week announced the temporary layoff of 236 classified employees, including paraeducators, custodians, nurses, secretaries and bus drivers. The Daily News in Longview reported that number could grow.

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Area districts have not announced layoffs, but Mike Merlino, superintendent of Evergreen Public Schools, said the district is talking to its labor unions about potential staffing “adjustments.” Merlino said announcements and more information could come this week.

“This is a totally moving target,” Evergreen school board member Victoria Bradford said in a recent discussion of the district budget.

‘We can do something’

The upcoming Labor Day holiday is supposed to be a day of rest and relaxation. For the county’s chief health officer, Melnick, it’s a source of anxiety.

“I’m begging people over the Labor Day holiday to make sure that whatever they do, they respect physical distancing and wear face masks,” he said. “That’s what we need to do to get schools open.”

The state is urging districts in counties with high transmission rates of coronavirus to continue distance learning until cases ease. Those counties that have seen more than 75 new cases of coronavirus per 100,000 residents in a two-week period are considered “high risk” if schools reopen, while those experiencing 25 to 75 new cases are considered moderate risk, and can reopen for limited in-person instruction.

Clark County, meanwhile, has ping-ponged between moderate and high risk for weeks; Tuesday’s report showed the local transmission rate was 74.7 cases per 100,000.

District and public health officials are building on the state’s guidance, tentatively planning to reopen schools for some in-person classes if Clark County can stay in the moderate risk category for three weeks of reports.

But cases spiked in Washington after the Fourth of July, when holiday parties contributed to increased transmission, and Melnick worries the same could happen again.

What we do now, he said, could make or break when students return to school in the fall.

“The whole point of this is that we wouldn’t be here if we’d been practicing physical distancing and face mask wearing over the last several months,” Melnick said. “We can do something about COVID-19 transmission. It’s in our power.”

Columbian Education Reporter