Vancouver school board hears praise and frustration during listening session on distance learning

Work loads and technological limitations lead the list of frustrations for parents, while burnout is a major concern for teachers

VANCOUVER — Better, but not ideal.

That seemed to be the primary takeaway from an hour-long listening session held by the Vancouver Public Schools Board of Directors on Tuesday, part of a series of sessions aiming to hear from parents and teachers throughout an unparalleled start to the year.

Shortly before that meeting, school districts across Clark County learned that their hopes of beginning to transition to at least some in-person classes would likely have to wait another month, at least. 

Vancouver Public Schools Board of Directors held a community listening session over Zoom this week to hear experiences with Distance Learning 2.0. Image via Vancouver Public Schools
Vancouver Public Schools Board of Directors held a community listening session over Zoom this week to hear experiences with Distance Learning 2.0. Image via Vancouver Public Schools

Vancouver Public Schools Superintendent Steve Webb said they had hoped to begin transitioning elementary grade students before the end of September. The move back into a high risk category would delay that until Oct. 20, at the earliest, assuming COVID-19 cases slow back into the moderate risk category by next week.

Moderate risk was defined by the state Department of Health as fewer than 75 new cases per 100,000 residents over a 14-day period. Clark County’s rate is currently at 76.15 and trending upwards.

“I know, obviously, that this is disappointing news for many,” Webb said Tuesday. “We know the very best place for students are in our schools and classrooms. Unfortunately, the COVID metrics are dictating otherwise.”

The district is finalizing a first survey of families, asking a series of questions related to how Distance Learning 2.0 is going.

The majority of nearly 4,500 families who had responded as if this week said they felt as if things were going more smoothly this time around. Seventy-three percent said they felt as if their child’s needs were being responded to either all or most of the time.

“Our staff, students, families all should be applauded for standing up a significantly better version of remote learning this fall, and I just want to take this moment to thank them,” said Webb. “It’s clear, however, that remote learning is not working for everyone equally well, and the feedback received identifies some of those challenges.”

A major improvement, noted several teachers, has been with attendance. While some educators say 30-50 percent of their students fail to log in regularly for classes last spring, most said attendance is almost 100 percent now, several weeks into the new school year.

“Five year olds and iPads were a little bit worrisome,” said Jennifer, an elementary school teacher in the district, “but their families have jumped right in. Today, I had a little boy showing his mom how to do the apps.”

The downside, she added, is that young children are sitting at a computer much more under the current system than they would be if in-person classes were a possibility.

“If we were in class we would be using materials, using hands-on things and playing, which is not something that we can do over Zoom,” she said. “We’ve tried our best to get materials to them, but it’s just not like it is in the classroom.”

Other students who struggle with social skills are not getting to interact with their peers, potentially putting them further behind the curve when they can return to class.

Nate Young, a teacher at Walnut Grove Elementary, said he’s seen an increase in burnout for educators who are scrambling to try and fill every gap and reach out to students who might be struggling.

“I would say that the reason that things are going well is because teachers have moved heaven and earth over the last four weeks to make things work,” Young told the board. “It’s been a struggle. We’ve had to relearn our jobs as teachers in a pretty substantial way.”

Parents with older students said they appeared to be coping with the changes better, as could be expected, due to their quicker grasp of the technology and ability to interface with other students more easily.

Rebecca Royce has a senior and a 2nd grader in the district, and said the younger child likely would be struggling much more if her husband wasn’t able to stay home and act as essentially a teacher’s assistant.

“I also have my father living with me,” she added. “So the thought of going back to school and putting my second grader inside the petri dish is absolutely terrifying to me, because that is putting my dad’s life at risk.”

Melissa Gonzalez is a paraeducator and a parent of four students in the district, two in high school and two in middle school. Her observation was that the workload for the younger students actually seemed to be larger than the older ones.

“In my elementary school that I work in, our second grade class is doing more work than my middle and high schoolers have done the entire three weeks of distance learning,” she said. “It’s really difficult having two different lunchtimes, trying to keep my kids at the table focused on what they need to be doing, while the high schoolers are in the kitchen, cooking. And then vice versa.”

Anne Vallee, an occupational therapist in the district, said it has been extremely stressful keeping up with 27 case managers for 85 different students across five schools.

“Just attempting to come up with some kind of a workable schedule has been a really big challenge for me,” she said. “And then learning multiple platforms, because depending on what level you’re working with, and I’m working pre-K through high school, I have to learn everything.”

All of that comes as the district put hundreds of classified employees, including a number of paraeducators and teacher’s assistants on furlough, unsure about their upcoming budget situation and how much time the hourly employees would actually be putting in.

“We need to start bringing some of these paras back into the buildings, or into the Zooms even, if they work from home, and help support these teachers,” said Gonzalez, who was not put on furlough. “There’s no way one single teacher can do his or her entire schedule throughout the day, and hold small groups, and still teach these kids like they’re supposed to be doing.”

Another teacher said she had heard from parents who sent an email to an address set up to respond to tech-related questions, and some had taken ten days to receive a response.

“So many of my friends are teachers, and they have been working so hard to make this work for kids,” said Director Kathy Decker. “Hours and hours every day, and then weekends, and to the detriment of their own health in COVID.”

The board’s newest member, Camara Banfield, added that many teachers have come to her in tears wondering if they even wanted to continue their career due to the difficulty of the transition.

“Everything we’re trying to do is to support you, and there will be mistakes along the way,” she told the group of more than 100 people listening in to the Zoom session. “And having people like you that are willing to speak out, talk to us, let us know where we’re missing the boat. That’s what’s going to help us move forward.”

“There are definitely challenges that need to be addressed, and I imagine there’ll be even more challenges that we haven’t yet heard, or that haven’t yet arisen,” concluded Board President Wendy Smith, who is also an educator. “I’m optimistic in the sense of there were a lot of things to celebrate here tonight, as well.”

The Board plans to hold further listening sessions as the school year moves along. Anyone wishing to send along their own feedback and suggestions can do so by sending an email to