Nine Clark County public school districts have collectively agreed to offer in-person learning for kindergartners in the coming weeks.
Battle Ground, Camas, Evergreen, Green Mountain, Hockinson, La Center, Ridgefield, Vancouver and Washougal school districts worked with Clark County Public Health to prepare to bring groups of 10 or fewer students to school in accordance with state guidelines for reopening schools.
No decisions have been made regarding in-person education for other grade levels.
Each individual district is working with its labor union to formulate return plans and start dates.
According to a press release from ESD 112, “This decision is safe and aligns with the state guidance for reopening schools.”
In counties with high COVID-19 activity, the guidance allows for in-person education for groups of the highest needs students, such as students with disabilities, students who are homeless, those farthest from educational justice and younger learners.
“Kindergarten students have no classroom experience, and remote learning presents significant challenges for our youngest learners,” Vancouver Public Schools Superintendent Steve Webb said in the news release. “This is a cautious, thoughtful and safe approach to support effective student learning for very young students.”
Over the past month, community coronavirus transmission has continued to increase. On Monday, Clark County Public Health reported 157 new COVID-19 cases over the weekend, and three new deaths from the virus.
The cases, which accumulated over the weekend, tie a previous weekend record. October has seen more new COVID-19 cases than in any other month.
Despite the surge, Clark County Public Health Officer Dr. Alan Melnick said he is on board with the plan.
Melnick said his greatest concern is with private gatherings, which have been a significant spreader of the virus.
He’s less concerned about spread in a controlled environment with precautions in place, and with a demographic of young students, who are much less likely to catch and spread the virus, according to research.
According to Public Health data, about 25 coronavirus exposures have been tied to students or faculty at Clark County Public schools, with only two instances where transmission likely occurred on a campus.
“We’re trying to balance the needs of the youngest learners with community safety,” Melnick said. “We’re doing this because we believe schools have the safety measures in place.”
Melnick said he’s not sure when the next cohort of students could be cleared for in-person learning. He would like to see activity levels decrease before that happens, but mentioned there is no one metric he’ll look at to make a decision.
“We’re going to be looking at the trends as well as the absolute numbers,” Melnick said.
Since summer, some kindergarten, pre-kindergarten, and special education students have taken part in in-person instruction.
The news release says schools will continue preventive measures such as health screenings for COVID-19 symptoms, physical distancing, mask wearing, increased hand washing and enhanced cleanings.
Districts will inform staff, students and families about their specific plans if they haven’t already. Battle Ground Public Schools, for instance, sent a letter to families on Wednesday about the option for in-person education at seven of its primary schools, a move that impacts 571 kindergartners.
“As an educator of 40 years, I know that nothing will be more beneficial to our kindergartners than to get them in the same room with their teachers,” Superintendent Mark Ross said in a letter to parents. “Developing relationships, learning to understand and manage their emotions, forming letter sounds and reading high-frequency words—these are all tasks that are challenging for a kindergartner to accomplish with a screen between them and their teacher.”
In a survey, 16.6 percent of students opted to stay remote, said Rita Sanders, spokeswoman for the school district. The first day of school in Battle Ground is Monday, Nov. 9.
Battle Ground will have groups of morning (9 to 11:30 a.m.) and afternoon (1 to 3:30 p.m.) students on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, following the same schedule as remote learning. While in their classrooms, students are required to wear masks. Sanders said during the first two weeks students will learn expectations on physical distancing, personal hygiene and being responsible and safe in the classroom.
Morning learners will take home grab-and-go lunches while afternoon learners will get a sack lunch on campus at 12:40 p.m. before classes start. Custodial staff will clean classrooms between the two student cohorts.
Students need to bring a jacket, mask and water bottle to school. Chromebooks are not needed for in-person education.
The district is still ironing out issues such as bus routes, potentially providing grab-and-go breakfasts and before and after school childcare. Families of students who receive special education services will be contacted, Sanders said.
“We are just really excited to get our youngest learners in the building,” she said. “It’s very valuable for their academic progress.”