Washougal schools to reopen to some students in January

Evergreen School District officials are considering modifying their earlier plans 

The day after parents and students rallied in front of the Washougal School District (WSD) headquarters, the district announced they would reopen classrooms for K-3 children. The two-day-per-week hybrid model begins Jan. 19 and is a starting point for a phased opening plan created by the district.

Following Washington State Department of Health updated guidelines for school reopening released last week, the district will begin the phased implementation of its hybrid model, starting with students in grades K-3.  The hybrid model features both in-school and remote-learning components.

“We are so excited to welcome additional students back in-person, we know how critical this is for student success,” said WSD Superintendent Mary Templeton.  “We know this will be a huge support to our students and their families, and make so much more learning possible.”

Washougal Schools Superintendent Mary Templeton observes a classroom where children are socially distanced. Photo courtesy of Washougal School District
Washougal Schools Superintendent Mary Templeton observes a classroom where children are socially distanced. Photo courtesy of Washougal School District

“These new state guidelines include new metrics, based on emerging research and data gathered by state and national officials, that will allow schools to have increased in-person learning opportunities for students,” the district said in a statement.

Evergreen Public Schools (EPS), the county’s largest district, will release plans for expanding their in-school learning as soon as the first week of January according to spokesperson Gail Spolar. Evergreen was one of the first to welcome kindergartners and other high-needs students into buildings for in-person education. Last month, the district announced plans to keep remote learning for the majority of students through Jan. 28. 

“In Evergreen, we are working on several scenarios about how to get more students and staff back in for in-person learning,” Spolar said Monday. “It will be based on continued direction from Clark County Public Health; and further review/refinement of procedures and processes already in place in schools.” EPS has 24,000 students and 37 schools.

Templeton walked the line of Washougal parents and children at a rally Thursday. “We got some good information from the governor yesterday that things can go a little faster,” she said. “It’s not gonna happen overnight. But I think we can start going a lot faster, and get to our middle school and high school kids. I appreciate what you’re saying.”

She alluded to the phased reopening, referencing the hybrid model announced on Friday.

“But middle school and high school is not that far away.  A lot of it depends on the infection rate.” Templeton cited the governor’s metrics versus Clark County. “We’re at 450, and if it gets below 350, that’s the middle school metric.”

Templeton said they are successfully using masks and social distancing guidelines. She offered a little hope, “we might be able to give a little on the other metrics.”

Many parents at the rallies last week cited the Mead School District in Spokane. They have been open from the beginning of the school year for in person learning according to one parent. 

Moya Skillman of Bellevue was on Seattle’s KVI radio Monday. She shared that Tacoma schools are ready to bring students back for in-classroom instruction in two weeks, but Seattle schools won’t be ready for three more months. Skillman said Gov. Jay Inslee last week touted data to open the schools that was originally compiled in November.

Michelle Escobar of Bellevue wrote a widely circulated letter to Gov. Inslee Dec. 8. “In short, parents and students feel like the choice to go back to school is being punted: between you, to the local health authorities, to the district boards, to the unions, and all back and forth with each other with no one being brave enough to bring all of the parties together. As parents and students, we feel completely left out of the decision-making process now all together.”

Over the weekend there were multiple rallies around the state, mirroring local parent rallies here in Clark County last week.

Emily Watts spoke out at the Dec. 8 Washougal School Board meeting. “If the Washougal School District does not take a stance, many parents will pull (their children) out of school,” she said. “We parents are tired, and downright worried about our kids. 

“As I watch my kids sit in front of their screen every day, void of emotion, I’m numb,” she said. “We thank you for reaching out to us to try to add more tools, but we don’t need more virtual support. We need someone in your position to help us. Other districts are making it work. Why is Clark County behind the times and at the mercy of Dr. Melnick?’’ 

“Zoom is not school” and “Students for in-person learning” were some of the signs people brought to the Washougal rally last week. Photo by John Ley
“Zoom is not school” and “Students for in-person learning” were some of the signs people brought to the Washougal rally last week. Photo by John Ley

Heather Purdin also spoke out at that meeting. “With so many families pulling out of school all around the state and our community, I think it’s unfortunate (that the students) will ultimately suffer the consequences of the loss of funding,” she said. “I think it’s unfortunate that future levies will not pass. Like most families, I have always voted in favor of school. Why would we now?”

Kelli Eldridge added her voice to the chorus of concerned parents. “There are inconsistent policies from school to school that need to be addressed,” she said. “This district constantly feels in a state of chaos, and there’s no transparency. It’s time to start listening to parents, and it’s time to put kids first.”

“We are working with our teachers and staff, public health officials, and other area school districts to review our safety protocols,” said Aaron Hansen, WSD assistant superintendent for Human Resources and Student Support, in a letter to parents and staff.  “We will get students into classrooms as quickly as we safely can within these new frameworks.” 

The WSD timeline calls for grades K-3 to begin the hybrid model starting Tue., Jan. 19.  Grades 4 & 5 would begin the hybrid learning model shortly thereafter, as long as transmission in the school environment is limited.  Students are placed in small cohorts, or groups of 15 or fewer students per group.  They will be assigned their group alphabetically by their guardian’s last name. 

“We want our families to know they have a choice to come back to the classroom in the hybrid learning model, or to stay in distance learning,” said Templeton.  “Families can let the school office know if their student will remain in full-time distance learning, and teachers are provided time each week to support these students.”

According to state guidance, plans for middle and high school will be available once the spread of COVID in the area declines to levels specified in the updated reopening guidance (average cases per 100,000 over 14 days below 350 for middle school, below 200 for high school).  

“In order to serve more students in our classrooms safely, all of us must wear masks, watch our distance, and wash our hands,” added Templeton. “Health officials studying the spread of COVID emphasize these simple, but critical steps the entire community can take to enable next steps in our reopening.”