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News / Health / Clark County Health

Pressure builds as Clark County school districts consider safety, needs of students

Local officials to issue decisions soon if their schools will reopen in fall

By Katie Gillespie, Columbian Education Reporter
Published: July 22, 2020, 7:39pm

As coronavirus cases in Clark County and across the state rise, pressure is mounting for school districts to issue a decision about how — and if — students can safely return to the classroom in the fall.

A growing number of districts across the state announced this week that they’d continue online education at the start of the school year. Clark County’s chief health officer, Dr. Alan Melnick, warns that the same could happen here unless cases start to drop.

“Right now, we’re in an explosive growth rate,” said Melnick, director of Clark County Public Health. “I don’t even think you’re going to find parents who want to take their kids to school. I don’t think you’re going to find teachers who want to be there.”

Clark County reported 20 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, bringing the confirmed number of cases to 1,577.

District officials in Clark County say they’re closely watching rising cases as they prepare to issue decisions in the weeks to come about whether schools will reopen in the fall.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty around what’s happening,” said Rita Sanders, spokesperson for Battle Ground Public Schools. “The public health crisis is evolving and changing everything so quickly.”

Officials from Washington’s largest school district, Seattle Public Schools, are recommending opening the school year with remote learning, joining a number of Puget Sound districts that are preparing to keep classes online in the fall.

The decisions raise questions about what “Virtual Learning 2.0” might look like, and how families who struggled with the model in the spring might fare.

In a news release, state schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal called on districts to ensure families have access to child care, meals and access to proper technology if they opt to remain online in the fall.

“We know that in-person instruction is the most effective model for supporting our students,” Reykdal wrote. “However, the safety of our students and staff has always been our highest priority.”

Melnick said that districts and public health officials hope to take a regional approach when it comes to reopening schools. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that children who fall sick with the coronavirus have experienced mild symptoms, children still run the risk of spreading the disease to older people, or to people with compromised immune systems.

“You can’t build a wall around schools,” he said. “Kids interact with other people, and if you have outbreaks in schools … it’s going over time to bleed into the older population.”

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If a recent Evergreen Public Schools Board of Directors meeting is any indication, the likelihood of a return to the classroom looks slim.

Evergreen Public Schools is Clark County’s largest district, with about 25,000 students. At a workshop Tuesday, its board members discussed the outstanding questions and confusion around reopening, and shared their anxieties about rushing to return to in-person learning in the fall.

At one point, longtime board member Victoria Bradford pointed out the irony in the discussion. The board members were all meeting virtually, confined to the safety of their own homes.

“If we can’t even meet in person, how can we expect our students to meet in person?” she asked.

Columbian Education Reporter