District teachers push back in public comment period saying return to in-person is not safe
VANCOUVER — During their school board meeting this week, the Evergreen Public Schools board discussed plans for continuing to bring students back for in-person learning.
Superintendent Mike Merlino relayed information from various school principals that the current K-3 students who are back in person are doing well. The district hopes to bring back fourth and fifth graders next week, with middle schoolers anticipated to return in mid February following continued downward trends in case numbers.
“If we take roughly 75 percent of the kids, choosing the on site versus remote we’re getting to the point where just in elementary, we’re bringing in a little over 4000 kids, which is a big thing for us,” said Superintendent Mike Merlino. “With expansion of elementary, with what we’re doing with students with IEPs, with the set team expansions, with some of the athletic things that we have supporting our kids, I think we’re pushing a number probably well over 6,000-7,000 kids at this point, which is a very positive thing.”
The Washington Department of Health maintains that a community experiencing more than 350 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people over two weeks should have schools phase-in pre-K through grade five in a hybrid model. Evergreen is currently in the second half of this process.
Merlino also touched on vaccinations ramping up in the county, and said he intends to continue conversations with other area superintendents and districts to coordinate the best way to get vaccinations done for teachers and students when it is possible.
In the realm of athletics, the superintendent reiterated that some sports will be able to resume practices next week so as to be ready when an adjusted competition schedule is set for each sport. Tennis, cross country and boys golf will all be available again at the start of February, as their season starts have been bumped up by the district.
“So it could be that if a fall sport can’t start right away, we wait until we get to the point where we’re in phase two or whatever point in time if the governor were to change phases that we could then participate,” Merlino said. “So the season could go longer than the six weeks, they may overlap a little bit because we just want to give kids opportunities any way that we can.”
The district also heard updates on how students can continue singing and playing instruments in band, orchestra and choir. Limits on singing are set at 30 minutes of less and special three-layer surgical-style masks must be worn. Spacing is extended to 9-feet and wind instruments must have bell-coverings. Staff is currently working on procuring those masks and covers for students.
Merlino also said Evergreen administered the PSAT to 300 students at the start of the week, and is on track to administer the SAT in the next month.
During the public comment portion of the evening, all those that spoke were district teachers conveying their concern and disappointment at the continued push for return to in-person learning; citing health safety concerns. The previous week, the board experienced a somewhat tumultuous public comment time from frustrated parents as well as educators.
“Unfortunately, in K-3 we have seen firsthand over the last few weeks how the unnecessarily rushed timeline to return as many students and staff as possible as soon as humanly possible before vaccines are available has jeopardized the mental and physical health of students and staff and families,” said Jenni Bradley, a first grade teacher at Crestline Elementary School. “I encourage you all to return to the school buildings that your decisions have returned students and staff to and see for yourself and talk to the students and staff and families that you have been elected to represent and protect.”
A consistent complaint among the educators that spoke to the board was teachers not being allowed to work from home on Wednesday’s which are remote days for all students, and students being permitted to remove their masks to eat in the classroom.
Educators said they hoped the school board would reconsider its decision to prevent teachers from doing their task remotely on the days it does not affect students so as to reduce time in the school building.
When middle and high school students do return, sixth and ninth graders, respectively, will return several days before the other grades to better acclimate to their new schools. The district will update their plan on a weekly basis, and parents can find additional info at the in-person return page here.