Eight Clark County school districts have collectively recommended a remote start to the 2020-2021 school year as the novel coronavirus pandemic rages on.
In a news release from Educational Service District 112, district leaders from Evergreen, Vancouver, Battle Ground, Camas, Hockinson, La Center, Ridgefield and Washougal announced they’d be asking their school boards to approve continued distance learning in September.
The school districts combined have more than 80,000 children and thousands of educators.
Dr. Alan Melnick, Clark County Public Health director and county health officer, also voiced his support for the plan.
“We all agree that in-person education is best,” Melnick stated in the news release. “However, the data and science of COVID-19 suggest it’s just too dangerous to head back to the classroom right now.”
The news likely comes as no surprise to Clark County families and teachers. Area school boards have been hinting at a likely virtual start for weeks as local COVID-19 cases continue to climb. Schools in the Seattle and Portland areas have also announced remote starts.
Still, district officials say the decision was not a welcome one. Battle Ground Public Schools Superintendent Mark Ross said in a letter to parents this will be the first time in his 38 years in education he won’t start the first day of school in a building.
“The safety of our staff, students and families is a top priority, and I am not willing to take a chance that our staff and families could be exposed to COVID-19 when alternative options are available to us,” Ross wrote.
Local decisions forthcoming
Wednesday’s announcement, though powerful, makes nothing official until school boards adopt reopening plans.
What a virtual return to learning looks like will depend on each individual school board.
At a Tuesday workshop in Battle Ground, board member Monty Anderson asked how continued remote learning will affect children.
“I understand the concerns on safety and well-being of people and the kids and the teachers,” he said. “When you put a stop to learning, is that good for society? Is that good for wellbeing? How is that for social and emotional learning?”
District officials outlined their plans to improve “Distance Learning 2.0” over spring’s sudden transition, pledging to reduce the number of software applications students have to use, invest in digital infrastructure and provide additional training to staff.
“Our job is to teach kids and keep them safe,” Evergreen Public Schools Superintendent Mike Merlino said in a Tuesday workshop with that district’s school board. “Our priority is always in teaching our students in the best way we can in a safe manner and that’s ultimately the way we’ll be doing it in Evergreen.”
Teachers have been pushing for a remote start to the school year. Kari Van Nostran, president of the Vancouver Education Association, said union leaders were encouraged by the news.
“We are committed to making the most of a remote learning system until it is safe to engage with students in person again,” Van Nostran said.
As cases grow in Washington, public health officials and educators have increasingly urged districts to keep students out of the classroom until it’s safer to do so.
“The virus growth trajectory in Clark County and our surrounding region makes it clear that resuming school in-person this fall could result in more widespread infections,” Vancouver Public Schools Superintendent Steve Webb said in the ESD 112 news release.
School superintendents are, for now, recommending tying reopening to the Washington’s Safe Start phases. Under Phase 3, according to the news release, schools could start offering limited in-person services to students, with more programs available in Phase 4.
Clark County remains in Phase 2. Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday paused phase advancement indefinitely.
ESD 112 also pointed to a study by the Bellevue-based Institute for Disease Modeling. The study projected that unless community activity is at less than 70 percent of pre-pandemic levels, “no amount of school intervention will prevent the epidemic from growing.”
“We all play a role in stopping the spread of the virus and helping schools to return to in-person learning,” Melnick said. “By wearing a face covering, maintaining physical distancing and washing our hands frequently, we can help get kids back in the classroom.”