Longview high schoolers will mostly return to class on March 1, the school board decided unanimously Tuesday night, and Woodland will be the first local district to bring elementary students back to school five days a week.
Longview freshman will begin half-day orientation sessions Feb. 25 and 26, then move into the district’s standard hybrid learning model of two days in person and three days in remote learning. Students will be split into two cohorts.
“I don’t want to send the message it will be perfect — it won’t be,” Superintendent Dan Zorn said, adding that there will inevitably be cases in schools.
When board member Crystal Moldenhauer asked Zorn if he feels that he has the return to classes under control, Zorn added: “There will be transmissions. People will get it. I don’t want to give any false guarantees, but I do feel like we’re prepared and we have done the work we need to do.”
Woodland School District announced Wednesday that not only will older students move to a hybrid schedule in the next few weeks, but K-4 will start attending five days a week.
Kindergarten and first grade students go back to full in-person learning beginning Feb. 23, followed by second graders on March 2 and third and fourth graders on March 9.
Middle schoolers grades 5-8 will move to hybrid Feb. 23 in two cohorts, with students with last names A-L in-person on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and students with last names M-Z in-person on Thursdays and Fridays. All students will be remote Mondays.
High schoolers will start the new bell schedule March 1 while remote, and the first cohort will be in-person on March 2. Cohorts will be divided the same way as in middle school.
“We are incredibly grateful to our community members for taking this disease seriously and following recommended safety guidelines to reduce its spread,” Woodland Superintendent Michael Green said in a press release. “Thanks to the efforts of our friends, neighbors and colleagues, all of our students will be able to return to school and receive at least some form of in-person learning by the first week of March.”
Longview board votes
The Longview board vote does not substantially change a Dec. 28 board directive to Zorn “to begin bringing students back to in-person learning in consultation with county health officials and in accordance with the revised guidelines” from the state.
Zorn said if the current downward trend in cases continues, then the rate should drop below 200 new cases per 100,000 people over a two-week period this week, which is the metric at which state guidance says high schools to move to hybrid.
Longview middle schools will return to in-person class Monday, as the county’s rate is below 350 cases per 100,000 people.
Board documents said Cowlitz County’s public health officer Dr. Steve Krager felt the plan to bring high schoolers back March 1 fits within the state department of health guidelines, providing the county don’t see a significant deviation in the infection rate or an increase in COVID-19 related hospitalizations.
Over 220 people tuned into the Feb. 16 special board meeting, and 17 of them commented. Board President Don Wiitala cut off commenting after about an hour.
“If there’s something that’s being rehashed over and over again, then we have heard that comment,” he said.
Remote learning a struggle
Many parents talked about the struggles their students have faced in remote learning and the depression and stress resulting from it.
Stew Larsen said that “every parent I talked to says basically the same thing: The education is not working through Zoom, it’s simply not,” while Josh Lamb asked the board to “get my kid off a screen.”
Lamb said as the middle and high school schedules operate the same way, they should go back at the same time.
Mother Christina McCoy said her senior is on an individualized learning plan and she and her husband do not have the hours in the day needed to sit with him and do online learning, which she says hurts her son’s mental health.
“Nobody is listening to the parents of students,” she said. “I don’t want to come home and find my kid dead.”
While she was grateful her son can return to playing sports, Stacy Keith said that should mean he can also be in class.
“I really hate to see these kids emotional and mental wellbeing go down the drain because people are sticking to the 200 number,” she said.
Again: Union will not strike
Longview Education Association President Jerry Forsman again dispelled rumors that Longview teachers would refuse to return to classrooms.
In an email to TDN prior to the meeting, Forsman said “the LEA has never had any discussion of striking for any reason this year” and “quite frankly, we have worked very well with the Longview School District to maintain a positive working relationship during the chaos of this pandemic.”
He added that while the LEA “has not and will not refuse to work without vaccinations” they would like to have teachers be eligible for vaccinations as soon as possible.
He said to the board “there is not a single teacher whom I have spoken to that does not want to have school buildings open again and to see the faces of their students, probably for the first time this year.”
Teachers on the Zoom call backed up that statement.
Mark Morris teacher Lauren Princehouse said that even though she’s “never worked so hard and never been so bad at my job” than now with remote learning, there was “never any talk of strike.”
Zorn added that the district and the union leadership have “worked closely on lot of difficult discussions because this is a very difficult situation.” He said there have been false information spread online about the unions that should not be believed.
He said while the district and the union haven’t always agreed on everything “I will tell you its always remained very respectful, transparent and very much in the spirit of trying to do what’s best for the kids we all serve.”
Forsman also said that the LEA believes the safety of one group is as important as the safety and health of any other group.
“I hope we can agree that no one should be willing to trade one set of lives for another, especially when it’s not necessary,” he told the board.
Wiitala also cut off several commenters, telling one woman who was saying the union was at fault that it was untrue and cutting off parent Sean Turpin, saying Turpin was “repeating himself.”
Turpin said he thought the Memorandum of Understanding with the union calling for a five-day notice was a “disservice” because teachers should already be ready. He also called for students to quickly return to five days in person a week.
“Hybrid is a good start but its not good enough. As board members you’ve failed out students for a year,” he said.
Buses, food service
Service Employees International Union representative Shawn Nyman said the five-day prep time was important because support staff had to be called in and there had to be high enough staffing levels. Food services and bus routes need to be put back into gear, and teachers need to adjust lesson plans for in-person learning.
“I know our teachers want to get into the classrooms, but there is a reason for the five day turnaround,” she said.
R.A. Long freshman Ava Williams said she was “really happy to go back to school” and thought that the waiting time was a good thing because “gives family and teachers time to prepare.”
“Thank you for hearing me,” she told the board.
In response to questions from the board, Zorn said that if cases spike after kids are in hybrid classes, “our intention when we get kids back is to keep them there.”
While that choice would be made in consultation with health department, he said its “far more likely that if we run into a problem and need to take a step back, it would be specific to the location in the district where we’re having the transmission problems.”