When the 2021-22 school year opens next week for most of Clark County, districts will operate on a regular, full-time in-person schedule with students and staff required to wear masks inside school buildings.
It’s back to school … and back to masks.
Six districts, including Evergreen Public Schools and Vancouver Public Schools, kick off openings on Tuesday, welcoming thousands of students to start a third school year impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite rising concerns of the highly contagious delta variant overshadowing the start of a new school year and recent mandates in schools, the word of the month for the Washougal School District is normalcy, said superintendent Mary Templeton.
“It’s going to look normal,” Templeton told The Columbian. “That’s what we’re seeking, and that’s what schools are going to look like.”
Here’s what we know as the first day of school approaches for some 80,000 Clark County students.
How long are masks in schools needed?
Until Gov. Jay Inslee says otherwise. Initially, Washington was one of just six states to require employees and students to wear masks in schools when Inslee’s July 28 mandate became a legal requirement. Face coverings are a must inside school buildings and buses at all K-12 public, private and charter schools. Exemptions are given to people who are deaf or hard of hearing, or with a medical, mental health, or developmental condition or a disability. Face coverings aren’t required outdoors. Schools also are following the Department of Health’s updated guidance on masking for after-school sports or extracurricular activities.
What safety measures are in place and are they enough?
In addition to a mask mandate, Washington now requires all employees working at K-12 public, private and charter schools to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or submit a medical or religious exemption by Oct. 18. That includes districts that contract out school bus and food services. Districts’ human resources departments are collecting vaccine verifications and reviewing medical or religious exemptions submitted by staffers. School officials are encouraging students 12 and older who are eligible to get vaccinated, and they are accepting students’ vaccine verifications.
Rising numbers in the highly contagious delta variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, isn’t requiring a massive overhaul in schools’ mitigation strategies. In the latest school guidance, state officials are encouraging — but not requiring — schools maintain 3 feet of physical distancing between students inside classrooms and to use a layered approach to safety and prevention strategies to reduce the risk of transmission. Many strategies that students and staff saw in 2020-21 are still in place, including plastic shields in select areas, one-way hallways, hand hygiene and cleaning and disinfecting. Daily attestation forms are no longer required.
Do students or teachers still need to quarantine if someone in their class tests positive for COVID-19?
It depends. The person who tests positive, regardless of vaccination status, needs to quarantine, and close contacts need to quarantine if they’re showing symptoms or not fully vaccinated. Close contacts who are fully vaccinated and not showing symptoms are not required to quarantine. A person isn’t considered a close contact if they are at least 3 feet away from the person who tests positive for COVID-19 and both are wearing face coverings.
If COVID-19 cases in schools skyrocket, will schools return to remote or hybrid instruction?
Schools are currently required to offer in-person instruction five days a week. But districts haven’t tossed their remote or hybrid instruction plans and are ready to pivot should local COVID-19 activity call for it. When responding to a potential outbreak in a school, Clark County Public Health said it looks at a number of factors when deciding whether to close classrooms or schools, including the number of COVID-19 cases, the number of people exposed who need to quarantine, student and staff vaccination levels, staffing availability and transmission risk. Districts operated at four and five days a week in-person learning last spring with minimal to zero transmission in schools based on safety measures in place. Area superintendents continue to meet weekly with Clark County Public Health officer Dr. Alan Melnick on COVID-19 safety protocols and guidance in schools.
What options do families have who prefer remote/online learning?
The Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction is requiring all districts to offer full-time, in-person instruction. While in-person and remote learning is no longer happening simultaneously like in 2020-21, families who want remote-only instruction have other alternatives. Smaller districts created virtual learning academies in response to COVID-19, including Ridgefield’s Wisdom Ridge Academy that launches Tuesday. Larger districts, like Evergreen, Vancouver and Battle Ground, are suggesting families enroll their children into programs already in place pre-COVID, such as Vancouver’s Virtual Learning Academy, Home Choice and Legacy (Evergreen) and River HomeLink (Battle Ground).
How are COVID-19 delta variant concerns impacting enrollment?
Right now, it’s wait and see. All Clark County school districts are forecasting enrollment increases in their 2021-22 budgets after declines in student numbers last school year because of COVID-19 concerns. Now, it’s a question if families who opted for home schooling, private education or alternative learning options, will enroll. School registration remains ongoing.