Clark County parents rally for open schools

Andrea Seeley: ‘I think what we have here is an epidemic with a pandemic’

A day after Gov. Jay Inslee modified his rules for opening schools for in-classroom instruction, parents and children rallied at area schools asking for school officials to move faster. They see classroom instruction happening all around the county, in Washington state, and here in Clark County. 

“I am here because this has gone on long enough.” said Washougal mom Emily Watts. “Other districts in the US and other states have opened successfully. If that weren’t the case, I wouldn’t be here. But it’s been proven to be safe to open schools. They don’t have an excuse anymore. We have a model to follow.”

”I just see my kids struggling to figure out how to be successful.” said Kate Winters, a nurse who cares for COVID patients.”I still fully believe that the cost of not sending our kids to school is enormous.” 

Parents and students rally in front of the Washougal School District offices on Thursday afternoon, pushing for parental choice and in-classroom learning for all students. Photo by John Ley
Parents and students rally in front of the Washougal School District offices on Thursday afternoon, pushing for parental choice and in-classroom learning for all students. Photo by John Ley

In Hockinson, there were well over 60 parents and children who rallied. In Washougal, it was roughly 30 people. Later in the afternoon, over 40 people rallied in Camas, where two Portland television stations did live news broadcasts for their evening news.

One young student was very candid. “It’s hard to pay attention. And it’s pretty easy to cheat. You just have to look it up.”

“I think what we have here is an epidemic with a pandemic,” said Andrea Seeley in Camas. 

One mom listened in via zoom to a Mead School District meeting Wednesday night. “They’re in Spokane and they’re open,” she said. “They’re one of the largest school districts in the state. They have some of the highest COVID case counts, but not a single case has been traced to the schools being opened.” 

“The best and the brightest who are educating children in Spokane have found a way to do it,” echoed another parent. “And yet the best and the brightest here in Clark County can’t.”

One mom fought back tears briefly. “I’ll try not to get emotional, but they need to be back in school. This has gone on long enough. They need to be in school. I really feel it’s safe. I think the kids can be safe. They’re so willing to wear masks and socially distance, to do everything they need to do. So make it work. Other districts have made it work. I think we can too.” 

One Washougal parent is hugely concerned about children being turned into “electronic zombies.” “The kids are on electronics now, basically 24/7. The one break that they used to have other than from home, was school.”  

Jesse Poulsen laments that businesses can be deemed “essential” but schooling and children’s mental health isn’t. “It’s so wrong,” he said. 

His daughter Taylor echoed that point. “I really want to go back to school. Our parents always tell us, get off your electronics and go do something productive. And now we are glued to a screen. I really think we should be back in school and considering that casinos are now allowed to be open and not schools, I don’t think that is right.”.

Betsy Oliverio was at the Hockinson rally. “We would love to have more dialogue with the school board and administrators as to how parents can help in implementation of opening schools for our kids.”

“One of the reasons why we decided to pull our kids out to homeschool is because the online learning was not working for our children,” said Sharon Hartung. “I was finding when they were doing the remote learning that they weren’t really learning. We chose to pull our kids out. We would like them to go back to school, they want to go back to school, but this is what will work better for us.”

She wasn’t the only one who had pulled their children out of schools. Two other families had made similar choices, making difficult but necessary choices for their children.

One young man was new in the area. He needs “hands on learning.” Sitting in front of the computer gives him an out. He uses it as an excuse to “do it later,” but he rarely follows up. “If I’m in school I have to do it; and it helps me to get my grades,” he shared.

Jaime Maas is a student at Washougal High School. “I think it’s important that we get back in school because there’s so many kids who are struggling with mental health issues. The only way we’re gonna fix that is getting back in person. There’s more kids under the age of 30, who have died of suicide than they have of COVID so we need to get them back in school so they can have the support.

Angela has two kids who should be in high school. “Why are only elementary kids getting the focus,” she said. “Because middle school and high school are struggling just as much as elementary. There’s separate buildings. So why can’t we start phasing in sixth graders, seventh graders and the ninth and 10th graders, all in separate buildings?”

One of her sons was really struggling. They switched schools in Camas where he’s allowed to go into the school a few days a week, full time. Since the switch he went from F’s to A’s in a matter of two weeks. “It just goes to show how important it is to be in the classroom learning,” she said. “There is a huge difference in his personality. He’s feeling better and his grades are better.”

A 4th grader who attends Dorothy Fox shared it’s particularly hard because most of the time, the other kids have their zoom cameras off, so he rarely sees his friends.

“I think if kids and parents want the kids to go back, I think they should be able to do so in a safe manner,” said Andrea Seeley. “Other schools are doing it in Washington. Private schools are doing it all over the United States. There’s states open, and it’s not any more of a spread than we have here. I think that it can be done. 

“I trust our teachers to take care of the kids,’’ Seeley added. “We’ve trusted them for years with our kiddos and I think they’re amazing teachers, they can do it. I’m just tired of seeing politics and other things get in the way of our kids’ education and their emotional well being.”

“This is hurting all of our kids,” said Heather Deringer. “I have children that are well supported at home, that are sitting in front of their zoom screens crying through classes. That’s not okay. Young men dying in our community is not okay. These children need to be back in school. Our case numbers in this zip code are low enough. They should be back in school. Now. Not lip service to a plan that might take place in February after our levy is up for a vote before then. All kids K through 12 getting back from school.”

“Our teachers are having a really hard time with this,” said Ella Wonderly. “It’s sad sitting in on the classes and seeing the teachers are talking to a bunch of black screens. That’s not okay.”

Her daughter Addy shared: “it’s really hard to focus in zoom and I don’t feel like I’m learning anything.”

Heidi Farrell commended teachers’ efforts, but said it’s not working. “I want to thank his AP teachers, they’re doing the best they can,” she said. “I know they’re working hard. The teachers are doing their best, but it’s just not enough. They just need to be back in the classroom.”

Farrell has lived in Washougal for 23 years. “It’s a great community; it’s a small community. We don’t have huge schools, we don’t have huge classes. They can make it work. Towns that are much larger than ours, like Spokane have. We have a great superintendent in Mary Templeton. Mary can make it work.”

Templeton walked the line of Washougal parents and children. “We got some good information from the governor yesterday that things can go a little faster,” she said. “It’s not gonna happen overnight. But I think we can start going a lot faster, and get to our middle school and high school kids. I appreciate what you’re saying.”

“The new guidelines suggest that we can get our elementary schools at least for hybrid, so that’s a couple days a week, full time for kids,” she said. “Right now we’re doing small groups, if we could get our elementary kids back, two days a week in person,

“But middle school and high school is not that far away.  A lot of it depends on the infection rate.” Templeton cited the governor’s metrics versus Clark County. “We’re at 450, and if it gets below 350, that’s the middle school metric.”

Templeton said they are successfully using masks and social distancing guidelines. She offered a little hope, “we might be able to give a little on the other metrics.” 

But when asked about them being ahead of the curve on the safety guidelines, would she push to move faster, Templeton backed off. 

“We’re trying to make the best decisions that we can for our context, and our context isn’t just Washougal,’’ she said. “That’s our responsibility, but it’s what’s going on in our community, as well as our county. So those are all the parts of the delicate balance that we’re all trying to do. Ultimately, my interest is to get kids back in real time as soon as possible. I mean, I think we can all see the light coming online, our infection rate actually has plateaued.”

“Once you realize the fatality rate is less than 1% of COVID,” said one parent. “We’re on the offensive to make sure mental health is good, because the isolation was so hard and it’s just not worth it.” Parents cited airlines flying with over a hundred people onboard, grocery stores and big box stores open with hundreds of people inside as examples of locking down schools not making sense.

A few parents commented about professional sports being allowed, but high school sports and activities like band and choir and drama are not allowed. Other parents asked how can students who thrive in shop classes ever make up for the lost hands on learning their children would have had? The wood shop, the automotive shop, the welding and metals shops all provide valuable skills for kids with a passion for these needed skill sets.

One parent said the students are not achieving the learning they would have accomplished with in-person learning. How will the school system provide a way for students to catch up? Her son has always been a straight A performer. This year he’s gotten a mix of A’s, B’s and an occasional C. 

Another Washougal parent cited internet problems. “The teacher comes on and off about every three minutes or so because they lose internet.”

A couple parents said their children have had to become “independent learners,” simply doing it on their own. “Independent learners, Running Start, kids will do fine in this environment,” said one father. “But those who need that in class, face-to-face learning, those are the kids who are hurting right now.”

“If you were to ask Miss Templeton of those kids who were failing classes last year, what’s the percentage of those kids compared to kids failing this year?,’’ said the parent. “I’m guessing it’s a three or four fold increase of kids failing classes. There’s got to be a solution. What’s worse, failing kids or a chance of getting sick?

“Every kid is a genius. But this is amplifying those who work really well this way and those who don’t. It’s an amplification of people’s ability. Every kid is a genius and has something awesome to offer to the world. But this is causing a bigger divide between who can actually succeed.”