Parents, educators react to online learning for the upcoming school year

Most parents say they understand the decision, even if it is disappointing

CLARK COUNTY — Parents across Clark County had plenty to say this week after the superintendents of all eight area school districts announced they were recommending the 2020-21 school year begin fully online.

Some were angry. Others were frustrated. Most were disappointed, but understanding of the decision.

“I’d probably send them to school if it were an option,” said Adam Edmunds, “but we don’t have a surplus of substitutes and certified teachers to step in if teachers call in sick.”

Online only education will continue in Clark County until at least Phase 4 of the Safe Start Washington reopening plan. File photo
Online only education will continue in Clark County until at least Phase 4 of the Safe Start Washington reopening plan. File photo

Others weren’t as forgiving, worrying the district was choosing fear over evidence.

“Kids NEED to get back in the classroom,” wrote Jennifer Heintz. “VPS says they are looking at the ‘data’, I want to see this ‘data’ they are looking at. Hello 99% SURVIVAL RATE!!!”

District superintendents say their recommendation, issued jointly on Tuesday, came after consultation with Clark County Public Health and the state schools superintendent.

“The virus growth trajectory in Clark County and our surrounding region makes it clear that resuming school in-person this fall could result in more widespread infections,” said Vancouver Public Schools Superintendent Steve Webb when announcing his decision. “That’s a risk we simply cannot take. Protecting the health and safety of our students and staff is our number one priority.”

The decision comes as much of the country experiences a surge in COVID-19 cases. Washington state has seen over 700 new cases per day, on average, for much of June, and Clark County’s outbreak has been averaging 20-30 new confirmed cases per day.

“We all agree that in-person education is best,” said Dr. Alan Melnick, the county’s public health officer and health department director, “however, the data and science of COVID-19 suggest it’s just too dangerous to head back to the classroom right now.”

On Friday, Vancouver Public Schools released the results of a follow-up survey, done five weeks since their previous effort to gauge how parents and staff felt about reopening.

In late June, more than 90 percent of students and staff said they favored a return to school “always, often or sometimes,” with 89 percent of parents favoring some form of in-person learning.

In the more recent survey, following the resurgence of COVID-19 in the community and an indefinite freeze on reopening throughout Washington state, opinions had shifted greatly.

This time, 60 percent of families surveyed said they felt uncomfortable or very uncomfortable with the idea of a full reopening of school buildings, even with safety protocols in place. Fifty-two percent said they had some level of comfort opening with a reduced number of students in buildings.

Teachers and other staff were much less likely to prefer a return to in-person lessons, with 77 percent of them indicating they were uncomfortable with a full return, and 57 percent feeling nervous even with a hybrid learning environment.

VPS said 72 percent of staff who were surveyed felt comfortable that they could greatly improve on remote learning compared to how things ended last school year. For parents and students, 53 percent expressed confidence the remote learning model could be improved.

“I have a son with special needs and it was a nightmare doing remote learning,” said Summer Livermore. “His team of teachers and assistants were phenomenal with how they handled the needs and education of their students, but I’m not going to lie, it took so much energy to work through the computer with him.”

Emilie Urick, a second year special needs educator at Maple Grove Primary School in Battle Ground, says she understands the frustration parents are feeling. 

“It’s not the parents’ norm to have to support their kids in every academic area,” she says.

While she misses her students and wishes they could be together again in a physical classroom, the 24-year-old educator says she’s also relieved the districts are choosing to move slowly with reopening.

“I have a heart condition and asthma,” says Urick. “I’ve had multiple heart surgeries, so I’m completely at risk for being vulnerable to getting the virus.”

Other teachers feel the same, or worry about what would happen if in-person classes did begin, only to be interrupted by an outbreak of COVID-19 in a classroom, or among staff.

“Everyone knows kids in school is the number one priority,” said Evergreen School District Superintendent Mike Merlino. “At the same time, we have to be able to do that in a safe manner for both the students and for our staff.”

While she realizes that parents are facing an unfamiliar battle when it comes to working with their children to finish school assignments, Urick says educators have also been stretched by the switch to online education.

“I’ve had families where they asked me, ‘Hey, I don’t get off work until four o’clock, can we have our meeting at five o’clock?’” Urick says. “And I’ve just made that flexible, and even my SEA (special education assistant) was super into trying to support families. Because this is an unprecedented time.”

Urick says she also experienced much of the frustration that parents felt after school buildings were closed last March. The shift to online learning came with an ever-changing set of instructions and guidelines.

“So teachers were not only learning how to use remote learning to teach the kids, but they were constantly getting different and new information that would change the way that they could teach virtually,” says Urick.

This time around, the state and the districts say they’re committed to making Distance Learning 2.0 a more structured experience, with better resources, more follow-through, and flexibility to allow families where both parents have to work to structure school around their schedules.

On Wednesday, the state announced funding was being made available to districts to assist with training teachers and staff on the various resources they would be using.

The state is also examining options to help with daycare for parents who have to work, or even allow a select number of students to use classrooms if they don’t have reliable internet access at home, or require some limited in-person assistance with their education.

While she understands the district’s decision, Amy Farland says she’s a single mom who also works full time.

“I’m not sure how I’m going to pull off teacher too,” she says.

The final decision on what the upcoming school year will look like is up to the various school boards, most of whom will vote the week of August 10. Between then and early September, when classes are set to begin, districts will be scrambling to get teachers up to speed, and make sure parents understand who things will work.

Assuming their students come back at all. Homeschool resources have been stretched, with parents exploring the option of fully taking over their child’s education.

“We are choosing homeschool over distance learning so we can choose our own schedule and curriculum,” said Micaela Batterberry. “If we are going to be doing it from home, we will take this opportunity to have more say in what they are being taught.”