Nearly 1,000 students in Vancouver schools may partially return to the classroom in January, as officials seek to solve some of the troubles of remote learning.
The move comes as many Washington school districts brainstorm new plans to resume in-person learning under more relaxed guidelines Gov. Jay Inslee unveiled last week.
Starting Jan. 7, Vancouver Public Schools will allow 953 students to attend live classes, in small groups, twice a week. They would continue remote learning three days a week. The district serves 23,000 students overall.
Principals and school staff selected the students – 520 elementary, 301 high school and 132 middle school students – based on their needs, said district spokesperson Patricia Nuzzo.
The students are largely considered more academically at risk than their peers, Nuzzo said. Many aren’t native English speakers, some are in special education programs and some are experiencing homelessness. Some simply struggle with remote learning, Nuzzo said.
“It’s important to bring these small groups of students back into the classroom because these are the students who are most at risk,” she said. “They need the engagement.”
The small groups will include about four students, and most in-person instruction will be done in half-days, she said. The district plans to have schools cleaned every day, with deep cleaning on Wednesdays, she added.
The move comes as the difficulty of schooling during the COVID-19 pandemic becomes more and more apparent. A study published in early December found more Vancouver students are receiving failing grades this year, The Columbian newspaper reported.
“It’s challenging for some of these kids,” Nuzzo said. “Some parents are working. They may not be home to help students navigate the technology.”
Vancouver’s program could precede even more students returning to classrooms in early 2021.
Last week, state officials released new benchmarks for bringing students back to classrooms throughout Washington that largely loosened earlier restrictions. For example, the benchmarks mostly did away with tying in-person instruction to local coronavirus transmission rates.
When Inslee announced the move he said schools and young children have not been shown to be major spreaders. In Clark County, 11 schools have reported at least two positive cases, according to the county health department. The largest outbreak at a school saw five confirmed cases.
“There is a risk in returning to campuses,” Inslee said, “but we are confident now that the risks will be mitigated as long as there is adherence to health and safety measures, like wearing masks, maintaining six feet of physical distance, increased cleaning and improved ventilation.”
Still, teachers everywhere have pushed back on returning. Rick Wilson, executive director of the Vancouver Education Association, the union representing Vancouver teachers, said teachers are eager to get back to help their students, yet they’re also worried about safety.
“I don’t know a teacher that I’m working with that doesn’t want to get back to the classroom as soon as they can, and as soon as they feel it’s safe,” Wilson said. “I get letters from people saying ‘The numbers are going up. Is this going to be safe?’”
Several districts have already set up programs to allow some in-person teaching for kindergartners and special education students.
Wilson said he was cautiously optimistic about the path forward – as long as cleanings, personal protective equipment and other safety measures remained a priority.
“If you look at the first groups that have gone back, the special education teachers and kindergarten teachers, they’re happy to be back with those students,” Wilson said. “It makes all the difference in the world. There’s nothing easy about this distance learning.”
Districts throughout southwest Washington are still digesting the new guidelines, said Monique Dugaw, a spokesperson for Educational Service District 112, which provides services to various districts.
“I can say that those conversations are happening across southwest Washington, and some are a little farther along than others,” Dugaw said.
Vancouver’s school board has not yet discussed the new state guidelines, Nuzzo said, but will at its next meeting in January.