Area educators call for delay to the expansion of onsite instruction

Clark County Public Health official counters with the belief that area school districts have taken a cautious step to in-person instruction

VANCOUVER — Southwest Washington education associations are calling on Clark County Public Health and area school districts to respect the state Department of Health school reopening guidelines and delay the expansion of onsite instruction until our community case rates come down. 

“Research tells us that in-person instruction is safe when community spread is low, and our community right now has ever increasing case numbers,” said Alan Adams, Ridgefield EA president and intermediate art teacher, in a statement issued Thursday. “Our educators have grave concerns about the potential for in-person instruction to contribute to the spread of COVID-19 in our community.” 

The educators addressed the fact that nine Clark County school districts recently met with Clark County Public Health (CCPH) to push for a faster re-opening, which CCPH enabled. The educators claim that school staff and community members were not included in those conversations. CCPH approved return-to-classroom plans despite case numbers being significantly higher than those recommended by the Department of Health decision tree. 

The educators pointed to the fact that the state Department of Health recommends the phasing in of hybrid learning when cases are below 75 per 100,000 residents for 14 days and the percentage of positive tests remains below 5 percent. The current rate of cases in Clark County is 131 per 100,000 and has increased each of the past five weeks. As of Oct. 29, Clark County’s percentage of positive tests had reached 8.5 percent. 

“The school districts’ decision to provide limited in-person learning to small groups of kindergarten students does align with the Washington State Department of Health’s guidance for reopening schools in counties with high COVID-19 activity, such as Clark County,’’ said Marissa Armstrong, communications director for Clark County Public Health. “The guidance allows for in-person instruction for small groups of the highest needs students, such as students with disabilities, students living homeless and younger learners. The state guidance encourages school district administrators to collaborate with local health officials when considering plans for reopening – and local superintendents have worked closely with Public Health since the pandemic began – but school district plans to not require Public Health approval.’’

According to Thursday’s news release, several education leaders reached out to Public Health Director Dr. Alan Melnick in an attempt to discuss recent guidance but were denied both the opportunity to meet with him directly and to meet with him in conjunction with local school district superintendents. Without the chance to discuss the guidance and ask questions directly, educators claim they have been forced to email questions and await his response. 

“We recognize the impact of remote learning on families, educators, and the community, but feel CCPH’s guidance to local districts contradicts state safety recommendations,” remarked Kari Van Nostran, Vancouver EA president. “As this pandemic continues to worsen in our county, ignoring it certainly won’t make schools safe for our students, staff, or community.” 

“Remote learning is in place to save lives,” noted Anna-Melissa Lyons, WEA-Riverside Council President and middle school math teacher. “We can’t lose sight of why we’re doing this.”

Armstrong believes that area school districts are taking a cautious step to in-person instruction.

“Local school districts have been providing in-person instruction for small groups of students, including children with disabilities, pre-K students and some kindergartners, since this summer,’’ Armstrong said. “Beginning in-person instruction for small groups of kindergartners is a cautious next step. School districts have implemented and will continue to take preventive measures, such as COVID-19 symptom screenings, physical distancing, mask wearing, increased handwashing and enhanced cleaning protocols. Because young children are less likely to transmit COVID-19 and given the continued prevention measures, we believe in-person education for small groups of kindergartners is safe for students and staff, and we do not believe it will significantly impact our local COVID-19 activity rate.’’

Armstrong also shared some new information with Clark County Today about in-person learning.

“A report released yesterday by the Institute for Disease Modeling shows that while in-person learning is not zero risk (and no scenario is, including fully remote learning), having small groups of young students attend in-person on staggered schedules and with prevention measures in place does not significantly influence virus activity in the community,’’ Armstrong said. “The report also shows that symptom screening and other prevention measures are highly effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19 in schools.’’

Here’s a link to that report:

“Public Health’s primary focus has been and continues to be protecting the health and safety of our community,’’ Armstrong said.