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State encourages remote learning for school districts

OLYMPIA — Schools throughout the state are encouraged, though not required, to implement remote learning at the start of the school year.

Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday laid out recommendations for school districts, depending on the number of new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people over a two-week period.

High-risk counties: Over 75 new cases. Distance learning urged at all grade levels. Limited in-person instruction could be an option for students with disabilities or other special needs.

Moderate-risk counties: Over 25 new cases. Distance learning encouraged for middle and high school, with the possibility of in-person instruction for elementary students and those with special needs.

Low-risk counties: Under 25 new cases. Hybrid distance/in-person learning encouraged for middle and high school, and full-in person instruction for elementary.

Inslee also encouraged districts in high- or moderate-risk counties to cancel or postpone in-person extracurricular activities. Chelan, Douglas, Grant and Okanogan counties are all in the high-risk category.

The governor noted a recent study from South Korea that showed children ages 10-19 spread the coronavirus at similar rates to adults.

“If every school district brought all of their students back to in-person instruction today, I believe we would see a real meaningful and dangerous increase in COVID activity,” he said.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said most of the countries that have reopened schools were those with lower infection rates than the United States.

“There’s mixed results out there,” he said. “We’ve been observing more than a dozen countries — some who have had moderate success in returns and some, quite frankly, who returned too quickly, too fast. They did not have the proper elements in place and, unfortunately, have found themselves shutting down again. That will not build confidence amongst families and it will not be a successful and sustainable restart.”

The state is committing $8.8 million in federal CARES Act funding to help low-income families buy the technology and internet plans needed for remote learning.

Most school districts in North Central Washington had already made plans for distance learning or were at least considering going virtual.

“This morning, we consulted as a region with our health officials,” Eastmont Superintendent Garn Christensen said in an email Wednesday. “All of them continue to strongly recommend a remote start given current COVID rates. Based on this information, we will be starting remote and then move forward with incrementally returning our students to campus once they are in support.”

The Wenatchee School District is also planning an online start for the school year. Spokeswoman Diana Haglund said the governor’s recommendations reaffirmed that decision.

Inslee said the state has committed $170 million to helping with child care for working parents, including offering stability grants for providers, waiving family co-payments and extending enrollment-based payment for providers.

“But I don’t want to pretend to say that this is not going to be challenging for families, and we’re going to continue to look for some potential options to help them,” he said. “It’s challenging because to stand up some new child care system within weeks, or even months, is extremely difficult. But we have to weigh this risk against their children becoming sick and their children infecting their families. The health of these children and their families has to be a priority.”

One difference between in-person child care and schooling, he said, is the scale and number of interactions as child care settings tend to include fewer children in smaller groups.

State Health Officer Dr. Kathy Lofy added that very young children are less likely to spread COVID-19 than older children.

Fishing for sockeye

CTE's recent $85k purchase for mobile lab will make ski-building more efficient, could become budding business for students

WENATCHEE — Ski building has been a part of Doug Merrill’s Auto-Cad (pre-engineering) class at Wenatchee High School for the past seven years.

Typically, it takes his students months to complete a pair of skis — from the initial design work to sawing them out of their vacuum-pressed mold and buffing the edges.

It’s a laborious process that builds excitement with each passing day, as students inch ever closer to unveiling the final product, drilling on bindings and hitting the slopes at Mission Ridge for a test-run.

But students this winter will be able to complete a pair of skis (or snowboard) in a fraction of the time it took those in years prior thanks to a recent $85,000 purchase the Career and Technical Education (CTE) program made for a self-contained fifth wheel Merrill has deemed “The Lab.” The equipment is set to arrive in December. Instead of two months, skis can be built in eight hours.

“I’ve been working on this project for at least four years now, trying to figure out how to get this self-contained trailer that is fully outfitted with everything the students need to complete a pair of skis or snowboard,” Merrill said. “... we actually saved a bunch of money this spring when COVID hit because we didn’t send any of our kids to state or national competitions.”

Merrill said he has also been squirreling away some money out of his annual budget to help with the purchase.

Aside from shaving off a few months of class time, Merrill is hoping the mobile lab will allow students to become instructors, and potentially, turn their work into a self-sustaining business.

“I would like to have it so customers could come in and work with the students designing their own graphics on the computer Friday night,” Merrill said. “On Saturday, the kids would take them through the whole process of building the skis and vacuum press them down. And then they could ski on them on Sunday.”

“We want to have it so that the kids are leading in a completely different type of way with community members. And then that would be our fundraiser. So, it’s an extremely sustainable project because you could build your own pair of skis for the same price as going online and buying a pair. And who wouldn’t want to do that?”

Good question.

“It’s sort of mind-blowing to go through that process in eight hours,” Merrill said. “In one day, someone can have a pair of skis they built and designed themselves. I think that is super exciting.”

And since “The Lab” is mobile, students will be able to take it on the road.

“We have some opportunities and I would love to have the kids take it down to the middle schools and grade schools so they could see the process as well,” Merrill said. “I think that would be a really great experience.

The best part about the whole project, Merrill said, is that it requires fairly low technology and creates top-of-the-line skis that can be customized for groomed runs, powder or all-mountain terrain.

While students this fall wait for the lab to arrive, Merrill said he plans to flip the classroom for online learning.

“So, kids will do the homework before they get the assignment,” Merrill said. “Behind it is the science, which is something we emphasize. We’re using all kinds of materials so that is what they will be studying and doing before they get to school and get to the hands-on aspect.”

Asa Smith, who was among Merrill’s first group of students to build skis, recalls the program being the most memorable and rewarding experience in high school.

“It took nearly the whole year,” Smith said by text Monday. “But I’ve never been more proud of something I made. They were perfect and on the occasional powder day, I’ll take them out. I don’t use them as often because I want to make them last for a long time, but everyone has been impressed when they see them.”

Nonprofits receive funds left from homeowner lock-out settlement

CASHMERE — The Northwest Justice Project and Chelan-Douglas County Volunteer Attorney Services have received checks for $208,825 from a class-action lawsuit over homeowners who were wrongly locked out of their homes during foreclosure.

Attorney Clay Gatens, who worked for a Wenatchee firm at the time and is now an owner at Cashmere’s Gatens Green Weidenbach PLLC, served as the lead counsel in Rhodes v. Wells Fargo N.A., representing 4,000 homeowners locked out in the years following the 2008 financial crisis. The case is one of several Gatens pursued involving homeowners whose locks were changed by lenders and mortgage service providers prior to foreclosure, claiming the properties were abandoned. The original case against a different lender, which has not yet been fully settled, started in 2010, with a client who lived in Wenatchee.

The class-action case against Wells Fargo was filed in 2016. About one-third of the plaintiffs in the case were from North Central Washington or Eastern Washington.

The U.S. District Court of Eastern Washington in December 2018 awarded the plaintiffs $26.3 million in a common fund settlement structured to make sure any unclaimed funds were not returned to the defendant.

Four nonprofits were identified to receive any remaining funds, two selected by Wells Fargo and the other two by the plaintiff attorneys.

“It was important to me that some of the nonprofit recipients be from North Central Washington, where the original case arose from. Northwest Justice Project and Chelan-Douglas County Volunteer Attorney Services both are involved in housing and consumer protection and borrower protections,” Gatens said.

The two nonprofits named by Wells Fargo are Rebuilding Together Seattle and Housing Hope.

At the time, no one knew how much of the funds would be left, Gatens said.

The process of distributing the awards to the class-action members followed. The amount distributed to each member depended on how long they had been locked out of their homes. Not all the checks were cashed, for various reasons. Some members had died or moved and could not be reached, Gatens said.

After two rounds, $835,300 was left unclaimed to be divided equally between the designated nonprofits.

“The Northwest Justice Project looks forward to putting these funds to use to represent vulnerable low-income people throughout Washington state who face some of the same challenges faced by the class members in this case, such as defending homeowners against foreclosure, renters against eviction, and consumers against predatory lending practices,” said Judith Lurie of the Northwest Justice Project in Wenatchee.

Eloise Barshes, executive director at Chelan-Douglas County Volunteer Services, said the funds will help meet the needs of the community for years to come.

“A gift of this size is a game changer for CDCVAS and offers stability for civil legal aid in uncertain times,” she said.

Gatens said the distribution to the nonprofits closes out the case, though others are still working their way through the system.

“I’m glad for the results to the class members and the impact, clarifying that lenders can’t do this,” he said. “It’s been a long road. I’m proud of the result.”

Coronavirus relief talks
McConnell: U.S. needs 'another boost' as coronavirus relief talks continue

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday said the U.S. economy needs an “additional boost” to cope with the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, as his Democratic counterparts and White House officials try to hash out a next wave of relief.

As talks neared the end of their second week, the four principal negotiators — a group that does not include McConnell — appeared to be near agreement on some topics, but still trillions of dollars apart on major issues including the size of a federal benefit for tens of millions of unemployed workers.

McConnell said he agreed with Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin that agreement is needed on another aid package, even though some of his fellow Republicans in the Senate do not think so.

“I think we need an additional agreement,” the Republican Senate leader told CNBC, adding “the economy does need an additional boost.” Nonpartisan analysts say McConnell’s Republicans face a risk of losing their Senate majority in November’s elections.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, appearing just after McConnell on CNBC, said there would be an agreement.

But she said she agreed that President Donald Trump should use executive powers to extend a moratorium on evictions for renters that was in a previous aid package but expired in late July. “I hope that he does,” she said.

Coronavirus aid needs to be focused on the disenfranchised and those who need it most, Pelosi told CNBC. Asked why Republicans as well as Democrats can’t agree with that, she said: “Perhaps you mistook them (Republicans) for somebody who gives a damn.”

Mnuchin was due to join fellow Republican Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, and the two top congressional Democrats, Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, for talks on Capitol Hill at 5 p.m. EDT.

McConnell continued to insist that unemployment benefits in any deal should be adjusted downward and that the agreement should include liability protections against lawsuits for reopening businesses during the pandemic. He said he was not being left out of the discussion because administration officials are reporting back to him.

Others not in the negotiation room considered their own actions, as Republican senators said they had been told that no deal by Friday would mean no deal at all.

Trump stood ready to use executive orders to address issues such as unemployment benefits and protections against evictions if talks failed, according to Meadows.

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio told reporters that the Senate on Thursday could also take up a new version of the Payroll Protection Program that provides financial assistance to small businesses in the form of forgivable loans.

Congress passed more than $3 trillion in relief legislation early in the pandemic. But lawmakers missed a deadline last week to extend the $600 per week in enhanced unemployment payments that played a key role in propping up the economy.

Pelosi and Schumer have pushed for a comprehensive package of assistance for the unemployed, the poor, hospitals, schools and state and local governments.

Mnuchin has warned that the Trump administration would not accept “anything close” to the $3.4 trillion in new aid sought by Democrats. Senate Republicans have proposed a $1 trillion package that many of their own members have rejected.