COVID-19 closes SW Washington schools, disrupts reopening plans

By Troy Brynelson (OPB)
Sept. 23, 2020 1:31 a.m.

People should take the news as a reminder that “we’re all in this together,” one school official said.

Hopes for more in-person learning at public schools in Southwest Washington have taken hits after COVID-19 cases recently spiked.

Clark County has seen more than 400 positive cases since Sept. 5, the start of Labor Day weekend, according to data from Clark County Public Health. Health officials say the county has tallied 76.15 cases per 100,000 residents the last two weeks.


That number lands the county in “high” risk territory for returning to class. Guidelines used by schools to determine what levels of in-person learning are safe say a county surpassing 75 cases per 100,000 should almost exclusively use online learning.

Some in-person learning is still acceptable in the high risk category, public health officials have said, but under only specific circumstances.

At Evergreen Public Schools, the largest school district in the region, some small groups of high-needs students have met in-person since Sept. 1. On Monday, some kindergartners also returned to in-person classes, said school board chair Julie Bocanegra.

Bocanegra couldn’t say whether the new risk level will change those programs. She said the school board, administrators and public health officials will eventually make that decision.

“My hope is it can continue, at least with small group learning opportunities and we keep building from there,” she said.

People should take the news as a reminder, said Monique Dugaw, a spokesperson for Education Service District 112, which provides services to school districts throughout southwest Washington.


“It’s a reminder that our actions impact our ability to return to in-person education,” Dugaw said. “We’re all in this together. Schools are not islands unto themselves. The actions we take – wearing a mask, washing our hands, maintaining physical distance – can have a real impact on our ability to reopen school sooner.”

It could be weeks before Clark County sees restrictions soften. Clark County reassess its risk category every Tuesday. If and when the county drops back to “medium” risk, it must spend two consecutive weeks there.

Health officials can’t tie the spikes directly to Labor Day weekend, but they did note the timing.

“Given the incubation period of COVID-19, we expected to start seeing the impacts a couple weeks ago,” said Marissa Armstrong, spokesperson for the county health department.

Armstrong said there aren’t any specific outbreaks causing the uptick, such as a chiropractor linked to as many as 300 exposures or a recent large Christian event held at Vancouver’s waterfront. Generally, most exposures happen between family members or at small gatherings, she said.

Cowlitz County, meanwhile, remains at “medium” risk. The latest update shows from Sept. 2 to Sept. 15, the county had 38 cases per 100,000.

Still, two staff members at Woodland School District recently tested positive. As first reported by The Daily News, the district closed two elementary schools in response.

“One of the staff members regularly works in both Columbia Elementary School and North Fork Elementary School,” Spokesperson Eric Jacobson told OPB.

The district had planned to start a hybrid learning model Sept. 28. That is now postponed, Jacobson said, and there is no estimated start date.

A similar outbreak in Curry County, along Oregon’s South Coast, led to the cancellation of in person classes this week.