Teachers unions in SW Washington call for classes to remain online in fall

By Troy Brynelson (OPB)
July 23, 2020 5:55 p.m.

A coalition of teachers unions and civil rights organizations in Southwest Washington is calling for students to keep attending school from home this fall.

In a letter released Tuesday, unions representing more than 6,000 staff at school districts in Camas, Washougal, Vancouver and elsewhere said returning to classes as COVID-19 cases surge would be unsafe.


“For the safety of students, staff, and their families, schools must begin the year with distance learning,” the letter said. “Educators want to be part of the solution and will be better served if given time to plan, train and prepare curriculum to improve remote teaching before school starts.”

Included on the letter are the Washington Education Association Riverside and the Vancouver Education Association, which represent teachers, nurses, counselors and other staff at schools. Local branches of the NAACP and the League of United Latin American Citizens also signed.

The statement denounced the politicization of the pandemic, saying some parents resist a requirement for masks to be worn at school. It also dismissed recent remarks that local public schools have good ventilation to keep students and staff safe.

“In Washington state, we can and must do better,” the letter said.

Cases of coronavirus have surged in every county in Southwest Washington since the start of summer. In Clark County, the most populous in the region, cases have nearly doubled since June 29, growing from 826 on that date to 1,577 on July 22.

Meanwhile, larger school districts seem to be embracing online curricula for this fall. Recently, districts in Los Angeles and San Diego, the two largest in California, announced plans to instruct online only. The superintendent of Seattle Public Schools is recommending the same, the Seattle Times reported Wednesday.

The largest school districts in Southwest Washington are Vancouver and Evergreen, with a combined enrollment of about 48,000 students.


Vancouver schools plan to hear from parents and staff again, said Wendy Smith, board president. A survey in the spring found parents and staff were optimistic classes would return in fall. A lot has changed since then, Smith said, and the district is releasing another survey this week.

Related: Oregon families and school staff express concern for return to school

“It was pretty overwhelming, parents wanted to send their kids back to school (in the fall),” Smith said. “But that was the end of the school year … and we were optimistic and hopeful that, by fall, things would be different.”

Decisions by larger districts do factor into the board’s thinking, she said, but she said those districts are so large they aren’t really comparable. She called the decision ahead controversial and tough.

“It’s incredibly hard,” Smith said. The school board is slated to meet Aug. 4.

A spokesperson for Evergreen said that district plans to make a decision no later than the first week of August, “so students, staff and families will know how schools will operate in the start of the 2020-21 school year.”

“Given the rapid changes in the COVID-19 pandemic, the goal is still to offer the most comprehensive educational experience in the safest manner for students and staff,” said Gail Spolar, spokesperson.

Union officials at both WEA-Riverside and Vancouver Education Association say they’d welcome a decision soon. They contend a quicker decision will help them plan and provide a better learning environment.

Adam Aguilera, of WEA-Riverside, told OPB he feels time is running out.

“We created this mess on ourselves,” he said. “And to then double-down and reopen schools when cases are so much higher than when we closed them in March is nonsensical.”

Reopening dates for classes at Southwest Washington school districts are between late August and early September.