Vancouver Public Schools officials still holding out hope for hybrid learning transition this year

The district is asking parents for their feedback in a new survey going out this week

VANCOUVER — Vancouver Public Schools (VPS) is holding out hope that a transition to in-person classes can still begin this year.

Assuming new COVID-19 case rates dipped back down into the moderate risk category by next week, the soonest the district’s K-5 students could return to a classroom would be Nov. 3, with sixth grade and up waiting until after the Thanksgiving holiday.

Vancouver Public Schools is pressing ahead with planning for a transition to hybrid learning as soon as November, assuming COVID-19 cases start declining in Clark County.
Vancouver Public Schools Administration building. File photo

“I know it’s frustrating,” said VPS Superintendent Steve Webb during a Board of Directors work session on Tuesday. “People want continuity and certainty. But the context requires us to be flexible and accommodating to the very best of our ability.”

The district has faced increasing pressure, particularly among educators, to push its hybrid learning transition until next year. Beaverton School District in Oregon recently made the decision to stay fully online until next February.

“Given our four-week upward trend, it would be nice to give VPS staff and families a similar sense of stability,” said Nadia Lutz, an educator in the district who describes herself as high risk for COVID-19. “Mental health of our staff and students is critical right now and waiting each week to hear if numbers are going up or down and what that means for hybrid versus remote instruction is adding an extra unneeded stressor for everyone.”

As of this week, Clark County’s rate of new cases was at 95.6 per 100,000 residents for the 14 days between Sept. 15-29. The daily number of new cases since then would indicate that number is likely to increase in the next week, rather than going down.

Still, districts across Clark County have already been transitioning somewhat back into buildings. Vancouver Public Schools has allowed some preschool classes to resume, and is bringing in small groups of students for in-person instruction as necessary.

Vancouver Public Schools has created a series of videos and information posted on their website detailing how the hybrid model would work, and their safety plan for when students return to classrooms.

Vancouver Public School parents will receive a daily symptom check reminder once their students start returning to classrooms. Image courtesy Vancouver Public Schools
Vancouver Public School parents will receive a daily symptom check reminder once their students start returning to classrooms. Image courtesy Vancouver Public Schools

Chief among those will be a daily requirement for parents to sign off on a questionnaire regarding their child’s health, and that of others in the family. Students will also have their temperatures checked when they arrive for class.

The district’s hybrid model is similar to others, with students splitting between different blocks two days a week, with online education the rest of the time. 

The goal, said Webb, is to keep students with their usual teachers and classmates as much as possible, and work within family units to keep students from different grade levels on as similar a schedule as possible.

Mike Stromme, the district’s deputy superintendent in charge of instruction, said they’re still working on the logistics of how that would work, especially if an educator prefers not to return to a physical classroom during the transition.

“I can’t obligate nor state that this is, in fact, what’s going to happen until we see what folks want to do,” Stromme told the board. “And then where their interests are relative to keeping their students with the teacher that they started the year with.”

The district is rolling out a survey of families on Thu., Oct. 8, which will run until Oct. 19 at 10 p.m. It will include two basic questions:

Do you plan to have your student return to the classroom or stay in fully online learning?

And, if your student is unable to remain with their existing teacher, would that affect your decision regarding having them return to a classroom?

“We know that that’s extremely important relative to the relationship they have with the teacher and to their classmates,” said Stromme, “and we would love to keep them together.”

“The sooner we shift that information out to families, the sooner we get that information back, the sooner we’re able to kind of assess what kind of solutions we might be able to bring to bear,” added Webb. “What the impact may be, relative to staffing and assignments.”

As students return to buildings, the district intends to bring furloughed support staff back, though as many as half may remain on the sidelines until classrooms return to normal.

Webb noted the district self-funds unemployment insurance, so their total savings with all of the furloughed classified employees adds up to only $45,000 per day.

“We could furlough all of these employees all year long, and not generate enough to solve a $10-million budget shortfall,” Webb said. “Once we get the green light, we’re going to issue those recall notices because we’ve got to scale quickly, within five days, in order to pivot to our hybrid schedule.”
Vancouver Public Schools is also hosting a forum for teachers on Wednesday evening, and another webinar for parents Thursday (Oct. 8), for anyone hoping to learn more about the plan.