Clark County school districts wrestle with complexities of expanding in-person learning

Even with the difficulties, many districts are slowly rolling out plans to increase the number of students who can attend in person

CLARK COUNTY — In a year full of twists, turns, and complex adjustments, school districts around Clark County are preparing for at least one more major change before the end of another strange school year.

School districts across Clark County are working on plans to expand in-person learning, but challenges abound. File photo
School districts across Clark County are working on plans to expand in-person learning, but challenges abound. File photo

With the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Washington Department of Health (DOH) recently adjusting guidelines to reduce physical distancing requirements from six feet to three feet inside classrooms, districts are now performing complex math in an effort to expand access to in-person learning.

Following that news last week, the Washington Association of School Administrators took a cautious approach.

“Some districts will need more time to adjust and plan under this new guidance,” said Executive Director Joel Aune in a news release, “though this development puts everyone on a pathway to more fully reopen schools for in-person learning by the fall.”

Currently Woodland schools are furthest ahead of the pace, with five-day-a-week in-person learning for elementary students since before the guidance change.

Hockinson and Camas School Districts have had four-day in-person learning for elementary level students since last month, as has Green Mountain.

But larger districts face a puzzle that is more complex, since six-feet distancing requirements remain for staff-to-staff and staff-to-student interactions, as well as during lunchtime.

“People hear ‘oh, it’s six feet to three feet so now we can just double up how many students are in there,’” said Vancouver Public Schools Board Director Wendy Smith during a work session on Tuesday. “It’s just not that simple.”

Scenes like this one inside Hockinson High School likely won’t be the norm for quite a while longer, even as in-person learning expands. File photo
Scenes like this one inside Hockinson High School likely won’t be the norm for quite a while longer, even as in-person learning expands. File photo

Jim Gray, executive director of teaching and learning for VPS added that principals have been working since before the governor’s announcement, taking inventory of space at each school and how they might increase class sizes without putting people at greater risk.

“For instance, desk sizes and seating,” said Gray. “We have some two person, five foot desks in our schools. Even at three feet, is it possible to get two kids at that desk.”

Schools also would have to figure out how to fit more students into physical education classes, as well as band and choir, which require continued six foot distancing.

“You can get more kids in classrooms at three feet, but as soon as you need to spread them out to six feet, where do they go for lunch?” summarized Board Director Kathy Decker. “Because some kids are eating in their classrooms for lunch.”

VPS has yet to set a date for expanding hybrid learning, but information was likely to come within the next week.

“I think there’s a lot of energy around the idea of bringing kids back for more instructional time, to getting more kids in the building at once,” said Smith. 

Washougal School District announced on Wednesday that all elementary students in K-5 would see hybrid in-person learning expand to four days a week starting April 12, while 6-12 students would begin April 19.

“We are working with teachers, staff, administrators, and public health officials to ensure we can provide safe learning environments for larger numbers of students,” said Mary Templeton, WSD Superintendent. “Staff will be working over the coming weeks to implement protocols for areas where the six-foot social distancing rule still applies, like during lunch and passing time, and in some classrooms where students are exhaling more frequently such as P.E., choir, and band. All district staff will have had the opportunity to be fully immunized by that time.”  

The district will keep Wednesdays as an asynchronous fully remote day, and continue with an hour late-start for K-5 students in order to give teachers time to contact students who remain fully remote.

“Our goal is to continue to provide service to both in-person hybrid and fully remote students this way through the end of this school year,” said Templeton. “We are also committed to providing the least amount of disruption to our students and families as we make this last transition for the school year. As we plan for next school year, we plan to offer five days of full-time, in-person learning for students in grades K-12, unless they are enrolled in the new online Washougal Learning Academy.  We are delighted that WLA is available to serve families who need flexibility or who are unable to return to in-person learning.”

On Tuesday, Battle Ground Public Schools confirmed to parents that they are working towards five-day-a-week in-person learning starting April 26, but cautioned that details are still being worked out.

“We wanted to share our transition date and learning schedule so that families can prepare for a more traditional school model,” wrote Superintendent Mark Ross in an update for parents. “Students will still have the opportunity to learn remotely if they choose.”

Ross said the district anticipates releasing more detailed information about their plans before the end of this week. Students remaining in full remote, however, will need to prepare for less direct interaction with teachers, many of whom will also be teaching a classroom at the same time.

Evergreen Public Schools has yet to announce plans, but spokesperson Gail Spolar said they hope to have information out to parents before the end of this week.