Thousands more southwest Washington students will return to classrooms this month following a new decision from the Evergreen School District.
But it’s a decision likely to face pushback from the district’s teachers union, whose members fear more students in buildings will fuel more transmission of COVID-19, a representative told OPB.
Evergreen’s plan, announced Monday, will bring elementary school students back to class in small groups for two days each week. One group will be in classes Mondays and Thursdays, the second will attend Tuesdays and Fridays. Students will learn remotely on the days they aren’t in class.
The district – the largest in southwest Washington – will return students by grade-levels in phases. Kindergartners and first graders return Jan. 19, followed by second and third graders the next week, and culminating with fourth and fifth graders the week of Feb. 1.
Middle school and high school students could return after that, district officials said, if it proves safe.
More than 10,000 students are enrolled across the Evergreen district in grades that could be eligible for in-person instruction under the plan.
The plan comes less than three weeks after Washington Gov. Jay Inslee issued new guidance around reopening schools. In that wake, the Vancouver School District, another large district in the region, announced plans to send almost 1,000 students back to class, including middle and high school students.
For comparison, roughly 53,000 students all of Oregon received some form of in-person learning the week before winter break, according to state data. Even with loosening restrictions in Oregon, too, the North Clackamas School District on Monday said it was “far from meeting” metrics for in-person classes.
Providing in-person instruction during the pandemic isn’t entirely new for Evergreen. District officials point out that they’ve allowed some students back in class since September: mainly, kindergartners, students receiving special education support and those struggling the most with remote learning.
“So we have the experience of having students come into class, into the school into class, do recess, work with PE and music specialists and things like that,” said spokeswoman Gail Spolar. “We have all of the safety processes, procedures, protocols in place, so we’re just scaling them up as we continue to welcome more and more students.”
Parents can also opt for their children to learn remotely full-time. That option will be available all year, Spolar said.
Still, the move lays a welcome mat down for many more students in the weeks to come. About 80% of kindergartners’ parents seized on in-person learning when it first returned in September, or roughly 1,120 kindergartners district-wide.
If the same proportion held true for the district’s entire elementary school population – about 10,000 students, according to state data – 8,000 students would soon be back in classrooms twice a week.
“That would be true by the week of February 1 if the plan unfolds as outlined,” Spolar said.
The district is using the 80% figure as a data point for planning purposes, but nothing is certain yet. The district is still surveying families for a more concrete figure.
“In fact, it would probably be higher since we are bringing back students with special needs and students needing additional assistance in all grades K-12,” she said.
That return would also bring back more teachers, including many who continue to worry about their safety and their students’ safety, union officials say.
Bill Beville, president of Evergreen Education Association, said the faculty union had cursory talks after Inslee’s new guidance came out Dec. 16, but no talks substantial enough to make staff feel prepared to return.
Beville said the district and faculty came to an agreement about safety protocols in August, but it needs to be re-discussed. He said the union wants to discuss everything from mask-wearing to classroom square footage.
“We want to get kids back in and learning in person – that’s what we do, that’s what works best for kids,” Beville said. “But at the same time, if it’s not safe for us, it’s not safe for the kids. So we’ve got to make sure that it’s safe.”
Adam Aguilera, of the regional chapter of the Washington Education Association, said a “grassroots movement” of teachers plan to oppose the reopening plans at upcoming Evergreen School District board meetings.
Aguilera said teachers are worried about a new, fast-spreading variant of the virus that led Britain to lockdown again.
“That needs to be taken into consideration for any discussions about reopening schools,” Aguilera said.
Spolar maintains that the district has worked with teachers and other employees. She said the district also formed its plans with the help of public health experts, like Clark County Public Health.
“We really have been listening to the experts, taking the advice of the experts, working with all of our employees and then putting all the required safety procedures, processes, into place,” she said.