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Dec. 2, 2021

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Clark County schools ready for the next hurdle

After year of continual adaptations, educators prepare to welcome more students for in-person learning with 3-foot rule

By , Columbian staff writer
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10 Photos
First-graders Jared Perez Bello, 7, from left, and Amelia Perkins, 6, take part in a lesson as classmates at home join remotely with teacher Tiffany Martinson at Washington Elementary School in Vancouver. When Clark County school districts transitioned to hybrid instruction in January, for many teachers, it included teaching simultaneously to two sets of students: in-person and virtually through Zoom. Now, Clark County districts are making another change after new state guidance allows for more spacing in classrooms between students.
First-graders Jared Perez Bello, 7, from left, and Amelia Perkins, 6, take part in a lesson as classmates at home join remotely with teacher Tiffany Martinson at Washington Elementary School in Vancouver. When Clark County school districts transitioned to hybrid instruction in January, for many teachers, it included teaching simultaneously to two sets of students: in-person and virtually through Zoom. Now, Clark County districts are making another change after new state guidance allows for more spacing in classrooms between students. (Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Just prior to spring break in a pandemic school year when nothing in education has been perfect, Tiffany Martinson asked her class of first-graders at Washington Elementary an elementary kind of question to kick off a math lesson on value number charts: “Who can tell Ms. Martinson what number this is?”

Martinson has taught at Washington for seven years and works in the same school district — Vancouver Public Schools — she grew up in. Scattered before her were students seated at safely separated desks and an array of young faces on a computer screen learning from home.

A first-grader in class shot up his hand, and said confidently, “126.”

“Beautiful!” Martinson replied. “OK, friends, please repeat after Ms. Martinson, ‘We have been in school for 126 days.’” The first-graders’ words nearly echoed in unison between what the teacher calls her “roomies” and “zoomies.”

A mix of in-person and remote instruction is what education has looked like since January for most Clark County students and educators. There’s one more change coming: Many area districts are adopting Gov. Jay Inslee’s recommendation allowing 3 feet of spacing between students in classrooms. Six feet of space still must be maintained in other areas at school, including where students eat meals.

That means in the home stretch of a roller coaster year, thousands of students are moving closer to full-time, in-person instruction daily. District officials say there’s more to it than bringing back more classroom desks — there’s schoolwide logistical hurdles to clear — but they say it’s well worth it to welcome students back to a more normal school environment.

Veteran educator Stoney Myers is Washington’s first-year principal. He often encourages his staff to make the most of what’s given them in a school year when adaptability, pivoting and whiplash of changes are continuing themes.

“You have to make some lemonade,” he said. “It’s not the best of a bad situation, because it’s not a bad situation — it’s the situation.”

• • •

School districts in Clark County have pivoted from remote-only instruction (and a revised Remote Learning 2.0) to a hybrid learning model since state officials first shut down schools in March of last year. Full-time virtual instruction remains an option for families of students who choose it.

Hybrid allows for social distancing as part of pandemic safety measures by splitting classrooms into two cohorts of students, so only a percentage of a school’s student body is on campus at a time. Six feet of spacing was the standard in classrooms until the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and then the state, changed guidance in response to new research showing students are safe 3 feet apart when properly masked.

When state officials ordered all K-12 schools to close in March 2020 to slow the spread of COVID-19, it was intended to be temporary. For educators, the past several months have been filled with unprecedented challenges and surprising insights into the home lives of their students.

Martinson, the first-grade teacher at Washington, said she cherishes the stronger relationships she’s built with her young learners. In times when mistakes happen through tech glitches on Martinson’s part, she hears muffled 6- and 7-year-old masked voices reminding her mistakes are part of the learning process.

“It’s funny when they throw my words back at me,” Martinson said.

Even as schools prepare for another change in the final nine weeks of the school year, teachers say creating a culture of learning remains critical, so students will feel connected no matter where they are.

At school, there are constant reminders of an ongoing pandemic: plastic dividers protect front-office staff, floor markings show proper physical distancing requirements, drinking fountains are roped off, hand sanitizer stations are in various locations, and door tags show if a classroom is disinfected. Even restrooms have a per-user limit.

At Evergreen Public Schools’ Hearthwood Elementary, Kathleen Rodda works longer days and sometimes straight through lunch for her 29 fifth-grade students. She recognizes each cohort has different needs and does double duty front-loading lessons with recorded videos for students at home while giving lessons live to those in-person. She’s taught elementary education stretching two decades, and self-care can be a challenge.

“I want to do the best I can for every single kid in my class,” Rodda said, “and that takes required effort and extra work.”

Hearthwood is a Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) school. Its framework establishes a culture to improve social, emotional, behavior and academic outcomes for all students. If students receive a Hawk ticket from Rodda, that represents a job well done being responsible, safe and kind. It serves as an incentive for students like Gabriel Hutchinson to wash and sanitize hands after recess; ticket drawing winners get one free excused online assignment.

Hutchinson is glad to be surrounded by classmates with similar interests, and he continues to grow into the hybrid routine. The days he gets to be inside Rodda’s classroom are a plus because “I feel better about my work,” the 11-year-old said.

• • •

Since switching to hybrid instruction in January, Evergreen, the county’s largest district serving 24,000 students, has assigned a remote-only teacher to elementary students whose families chose remote-only learning. Sometimes, that teacher serves students in multiple schools.

That method doesn’t work as well for secondary students who roam class to class for multiple subjects.

The bifurcated nature of teaching to students in-person and online at the same time can be its own kind of lesson, and it gets even trickier for those who have upwards to 150 students on their rosters.

Middle school English and history teacher Lance Smith sets up what he calls an ‘aquarium cam’ in the back of his second-story Thomas Jefferson Middle School classroom for students learning at home to get the feeling of sitting in class. About 700 of the school’s 820 students do hybrid learning, said principal Luke LeCount. Roughly 71 percent of VPS students across K-12 are in hybrid, according to March data. At Evergreen, that number is 65 percent, according to district data.

The smaller, intimate classroom setting of hybrid learning reminds Smith of his first teaching job in tiny Klickitat County community of Bickleton, where he once taught four students in a class. Teachers are natural multitaskers, he said, but his daily dilemma goes beyond traditional classroom management: Is the technology working? Is each subgroup getting equal attention? Are students learning virtually paying attention if their cameras are turned off?

There’s a performing art to it, he said, but the pandemic has reinforced for Smith how he feels about teaching.

“It’s so much more than the content we teach,” he said, “it’s validating, encouraging and challenging our kids wherever they are in their lives. … We adapt as best we can, often imperfectly, just like they have.”

Seventh-grader Stella Henderson said she can appreciate the different experience hybrid learning offers, and she said the extra effort from teachers like Smith make it better. She and other in-person classmates on a recent Socratic seminar about Nintendo got a rare treat: whipping out pencil and paper instead of iPads. But the entire class chimed in throughout the period.

“It’s fun,” Henderson said, “because (Smith) engages with the students, and not all teachers do that.”

Students engagement strategies have tested teachers all year, but so have difficult decisions on lesson material — more notably, what to prioritize and what to sacrifice because of compressed instructional time.

That’s especially true in high school Advanced Placement classes where students are preparing for next month’s national exams. At Union High School, more than 600 students are preparing to take close to 1,200 Advance Placement tests next month, said counselor Todd Spike, also the school’s AP coordinator. The College Board altered AP examinations once school shut down last March but now is administering full-length, full-topic exams again.

AP English literature teacher Mylei Carlton taught William Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” for the first time this year but wasn’t able to get to other Shakespearean classics because of time constraints. Students are spending April test-prepping, and during this second semester, many in Carlton’s all-senior AP class are voluntarily reading more material outside of class time because “they’re serious about wanting to take the test and get a good score.”

“I’m trying to give them a choice,” she said.

• • •

Since Washington schools got the option to implement CDC and state guidance to reduce physical distancing in classrooms to 3 feet, planning preparations came with more questions.

How will classroom furniture be arranged? Where will students eat lunch? How can students who remain remote still be supported?

In Camas, district and school staff pulled furniture from storage sheds weeks ago preparing for four-day-a-week instruction starting March 22 for its elementaries. Superintendent Jeff Snell said it was a planned progression to add more students to classrooms before the 3-foot spacing guidance because of classroom capacity levels at its K-5 schools. But he said the new guidance is a game changer at all grades for a more traditional school week as the school year winds down.

“That 6 feet was a big barrier not just for our system, but for all systems,” Snell said. … “That, right away, presented some real challenges, so without the 6-foot change, we won’t even be talking about four days.”

Smaller districts like Camas and Washougal plan to stretch hybrid instruction to four days a week of in-person learning across all grades as soon as Monday. Ridgefield is doing full-time, in-person instruction for grades K-6 starting Monday, and Battle Ground Public Schools told staff and families it will provide full-time five-day-a-week in-person learning April 26.

Battle Ground Public Schools spokeswoman Rita Sanders said Wednesday the district surveyed families again for their instructional method of choice and will see a 7.5-percent increase of elementary students for full-time instruction from initial twice-a-week hybrid instruction. She added elementary students also no longer will eat meals in their classrooms.

“We’re taking a step in that (full-time instruction) direction and following all the safety protocols and doing our best to problem solve anything that comes up to kids back into the classroom,” Sanders said, “because we know that, for the majority of them, that’s where they need to be.”

Snell, who begins as Vancouver’s superintendent July 1, said while the school year has brought on constant challenges, changes and contingency plans, he sees education in a pandemic as shedding light on what’s ahead post-pandemic. He’ll be glad when this school year is over — “I’m tired, as well,” he said — but added it’s an exciting time to be an educator and a top district administrator.

“It’s going to create opportunities for us as a public school system to really force us to think about what matters most,” Snell said. “There’s so much potential that we’ve scraped the surface of and can really do some cool things for students and the community as a result of what we’ve learned.”