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Vancouver Public Schools kindergartners step into class for first time

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:
5 Photos
Jade Westbrooks, 5, stomps her feet as part of a counting exercise in Molly Davenport's kindergarten class Tuesday morning at Marshall Elementary in Vancouver. Kindergartners recently began in-person learning in Vancouver Public Schools.
Jade Westbrooks, 5, stomps her feet as part of a counting exercise in Molly Davenport's kindergarten class Tuesday morning at Marshall Elementary in Vancouver. Kindergartners recently began in-person learning in Vancouver Public Schools. (Joshua Hart/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

In 30 years as a Vancouver Public Schools educator, Marshall Elementary principal Bobbi Geenty had what she called the “best day ever” welcoming kindergarten students this week to her school.

“This,” Geenty said Tuesday, the second day of hybrid learning for the district’s youngest learners, “was the highlight of my principal career.”

This week, Marshall, along with 20 other elementaries districtwide, brought kindergartners to the classroom more than three weeks after local districts worked with Clark County Public Health to have small groups of students inside school buildings for in-person learning.

The district said a recent survey showed that 13.4 percent of kindergarten families are choosing to stay in full remote learning.

For Geenty and her staff, seeing students not through a screen for the first time Monday felt special in more ways than one. No classes of students have graced Marshall’s hallways since construction on the new building finished in March.

The goal this week is to get students to learn their new surroundings, the principal said.

“They know who their teachers are, they know who their classmates are,” Geenty said, “so really, it’s about learning your new school and how school works in a building.”

Superintendents of all nine of Clark County’s school districts agreed on Oct. 26 to bring small groups of kindergarten students to the classroom in a hybrid format. But in the weeks since, COVID-19 numbers have risen significantly — including a single-day record of 277 new cases and a two-week rate of 254.45 new cases per 100,000 population.

State guidance for counties with high COVID-19 activity allows for in-person education in small groups for the highest need students, such as students with disabilities, students living homeless, those farthest from educational justice and younger learners.

Clark County Public Health spokesperson Marissa Armstrong said the state’s guidance does not require school districts to get health department approval of their plans, though local districts continue to collaborate with the department. She said Public Health reviewed the school districts’ plans to bring small groups into schools for in-person learning and agreed those plans aligned with state guidance.

In September, Evergreen Public Schools launched a pilot program at four schools to bring kindergartners to class in four pods of five students. That expanded to all 22 district elementary schools by Sept. 28, said district spokesperson Gail Spolar.

Despite rising COVID-19 cases, Brett Henry, a parent of an Emerald Elementary kindergartner, said he and his wife feel safe sending their son to in-person learning two days per week. They’ve watched their oldest child grow immensely in seven weeks of hybrid learning.

“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a concern,” Henry said, “but it’s weighing the benefits versus the risks. What it does for us is makes us choose between other things in our lives.”

Back at Marshall inside Molly Davenport’s classroom on Tuesday, seven of Davenport’s 12 students enjoyed their second day of in-person learning. Students are separated into two pods and attend school two days a week, three hours a day. The remaining five students begin their first days of in-person learning Thursday.

Five-year-old Jade Westbrooks said she’s already made lots of friends among her classmates, and enjoyed Tuesday’s writing time. Classmate Adalyn Wyenberg, also 5, said she was excited to be at her new school — “I like going to the playground,” she said — and being part of the first students to be at the new Marshall. She was proud to show off her self-portrait artwork displayed in the hallway outside her classroom.

“I like that there’s a lot of the rainbow stuff,” Adalyn said, pointing to surrounding artwork in the hall.

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