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For Eastmont Junior High student, self-motivation is key to online learning

EAST WENATCHEE — Like many other districts, Eastmont is implementing an online-only start to the school year with classes beginning today.

Students could gradually return to the classroom if health officials deem it safe.

However, Vanessa Betancourt and her 13-year-old daughter, Chanel Nguyen, have elected to continue online learning for the whole year even if students are allowed back in the building. For them, it’s about keeping Chanel on a consistent schedule and avoiding possible exposure to COVID-19.

Betancourt, who also has a toddler, works for Head Start and takes precautions like changing her clothes when she gets home.

“But to have her exposed also, it’s just adding more factors in,” she said of her daughter. “At this point we don’t even know how we’re going to react to being exposed to that. There’s people that are only sick for a few days, and there’s people that are sick for a longer time.”

Chanel is entering eighth grade at Eastmont Junior High.

Her last year at Sterling Intermediate was interrupted when Gov. Jay Inslee ordered all schools to close in mid-March. Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal followed with a mandate that learning continue online.

Chanel said last semester involved daily virtual meetings with teachers and educational websites like Freckle that included lessons.

“You have to be more self-motivated and try to focus on learning, stay organized more,” she said. “In classrooms you have your stuff all there and they give you the papers to do your assignments. It’s different. The pros of online learning are you don’t get distracted as easily because of your classmates talking or telling jokes, but also it’s kind of sad because it’s just you and your family.”

A couple of times the internet went out, causing her to miss lessons. Another downside, she said, is having to email teachers questions and wait for a reply instead of getting direct answers in the classroom.

She also misses hands-on activities at school. However, she keeps in touch with her friends by phone.

“I’m also going to make a schedule to socialize,” she said. “There will be times when friends will want to talk during school hours, so I’m just going to tell them that I have a schedule from this time to that time and I can talk to them (after). The most important thing right now is learning because you don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

Although not required, schools throughout the state have been encouraged to use remote instruction — especially in counties deemed high-risk for virus spread, like Chelan and Douglas.

Betancourt and Chanel picked up a Chromebook from school last week.

A desk helps Chanel stay organized, and her calendar and Amazon Echo Dot remind her of meetings and other events. She also uses headphones to better hear the teachers.

Chanel was named Student of the Year last year at Sterling. She plans to be involved with the student government at Eastmont Junior High this year and also hopes to take beginner violin classes, though she’s not exactly sure how either of those activities will work.

Betancourt said she does worry about Chanel’s socialization needs, but tries to meet them by having her spend time with family, go on hikes or run at the school track.

“If it was a child that didn’t have access to those kinds of things, I’m sure they would be suffering through depression,” Betancourt said.

Although the transition to remote learning was stressful at first and the family had to adjust their schedules, she said, it helped that her daughter was motivated. Chanel kept on top of her schoolwork and in touch with her teachers.

Betancourt believes Chanel’s grades will benefit from that level of focus.

“With her age group, it’s a little bit easier, but I can’t imagine having (a child) that’s in first or second grade,” she said. “I’m a teacher, but I’m also at home more right now. It’s just a little bit easier for me. Our experience is going to be a lot different, I think.”

Local post office reconnects mail machine slated for removal

WENATCHEE — U.S. Postal Service staff did not restart its letter-canceling machine in Wenatchee earlier this month in defiance of orders from the U.S. Postmaster General, a top postal union official says.

A Sunday Forbes online article claimed Postal Service workers in Wenatchee reconnected the machine in defiance of upper management. The district did disconnect its machine when told, said Ryan Harris, president of the Wenatchee Local American Postal Workers Union and the Washington State American Postal Workers Union.

Harris said workers reconnected them when given the OK by management in Seattle.

A spokesperson for the United States Postal Service did not return a phone call for comment.

The Wenatchee office was told to disconnect its letter-canceling machine by Aug. 15 and that it would all be shipped to Spokane for consolidation, he said. The machine takes a picture of letters, sprays a barcode on the back and the front, as well as cancels stamps so they can’t be used again.

Wenatchee is not the only branch faced with consolidation. Offices in Tacoma and Yakima also were told to disconnect their machines, he said.

On Aug. 17, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a lawsuit, along with 20 other states, to stop changes to the postal service. The Postmaster General then said soon after that no changes would be made before the election in November.

“So we jump on (his announcement) progressively and get a hold of maintenance managers all throughout the Seattle District and we get the OK, Tuesday, to hook the mail machine back up,” Harris said.

A member of senior management in Seattle told the Wenatchee employees to hook everything back together, take pictures when it was reconnected and even to use overtime to get it operational, he said.

“It wasn’t just that we stood up and said, ‘Hell no, we’re not going to do it. We’re going to put it back into service, screw you.’” he said. “It wasn’t anything like that at all.”

Shortly after Wenatchee employees reinstalled their machine, though, management in Seattle received a letter from Washington, D.C., saying not to reinstall any machines that had already been unplugged, Harris said.

The argument for taking machines to Spokane is that the number of letters being mailed is down about 30% due to COVID-19, he said. Harris said while that may be true, he believes after the pandemic the amount of mail will likely return to normal.

“When the schools start sending out stuff, advertisements for the businesses are open, all that comes back, we wouldn’t have the capacity to sort all of it again,” he said.

The potential impact of losing the machine in Wenatchee is that mail being sent locally would be taken to Spokane, potentially adding a day or two to deliveries, Harris said. The goal of the postal service is to increase the delivery time from one to two days, to three to five days, he said.

“So if you mail in one of the big cities that we separate (for), they would get it the next day technically,” he said. “Where as now it would (go to) Spokane, back to us, we’d run it again so it might be three days before we even read it and four days to five days before it is delivered.”

Confluence Health switches to antigen tests, which can return COVID-19 results within a day

WENATCHEE — Confluence Health on Wednesday will begin using COVID-19 antigen tests, a new method that can return results to patients within a day.

Rather than being sent to an external lab for processing, which can take several days, these tests will be analyzed in Confluence Health facilities, Chief Medical Officer-elect Dr. Jason Lake said Tuesday.

Each test can be analyzed in around 15 minutes. Patients who are tested in the morning could expect to receive their results the same day and people tested in the afternoon would likely receive results the following morning, he said.

Nearly all health care organizations in the area, including Confluence Health, have been using a testing method called polymerase chain reaction, or PCR. These tests amplify and detect genetic material associated with the virus — which is highly accurate but takes a full lab and more time to conduct.

Antigen tests look for fragments of the virus’ protein, a process that’s faster but can also be less accurate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Confluence Health is using an antigen testing system from a company called Quidel Corporation, which received authorization for emergency use of the tests from the Food and Drug Administration in May. Confluence is confident the tests will perform accurately, Lake said.

“The problem with antigen tests as a whole category is there’s a lot of variability in the accuracy of the tests, dependent on the maker of the device and the reagent,” he said. “Different antigen tests have different characteristics. The test that we have … is a very, very good, highly reliable antigen test. It’s probably the best antigen test machine out there. So it has a sensitivity nearly 97% compared with PCR.”

Since antigen tests are not as sensitive as PCR tests, positive results are “highly accurate” but the tests can’t always detect lower traces of the virus, which can lead to false negatives, read part of an FDA release.

Confluence will still use traditional PCR tests in situations where accuracy is critical.

If a patient is admitted to Confluence’s Central Washington Hospital with respiratory infection symptoms similar to COVID-19 and an antigen test returns negative, a follow-up PCR test will be used to confirm the results.

“If they get a negative antigen test, we’re going to send a PCR just to be absolutely sure,” Lake said. “What we want to do is make sure our PPE practices continue to be robust in the hospital to keep patients and staff safe. So we really don’t want to miss any possible COVID cases for patients coming into the hospital.”

Starting Wednesday, the “vast majority” of tests performed by Confluence Health will use the antigen method, including at its drive-thru sites, Lake said. In early August the main drive-thru in Wenatchee was testing around 400 people per day.

Lake wasn’t aware of any other health care providers in North Central Washington that have wholesale switched to antigen tests. But Confluence Health spoke with the Department of Health, which was “very comfortable” with the change, he said.

It’s been stocking up on supplies in anticipation of the changeover and now has a little over 7,000 antigen tests on hand.

Confluence’s PCR swabs needed to be inserted deep into the nose to collect an optimal sample. In addition to a faster turnaround time, the new antigen tests only require a shallow swab in the nose.

“At the same time we’re converting to nasal swabbing that the patient can do themselves, rather than the nasopharyngeal swabbing, which is more invasive and more uncomfortable,” he said. “So we think that this will be a much more comfortable test for the patients as well. So there’s a lot of reasons we’re excited about making this conversion.”

They’ll be processed with the same machines the organization uses for analyzing traditional flu tests, Lake said.

“I think this sets us up very well in terms of workflows as we approach the flu season,” he said. “For patients who have respiratory symptoms, they ultimately may need to be tested for the flu and for COVID as we enter into the fall, and we consolidate that testing all into the same machine.”

Dad of elementary student sees benefits to in-person instruction

EAST WENATCHEE — The start of school often brings excitement, but for parent Brendan Manderly, it has produced anxiety.

“How is this going to work? What’s it going to look like?” he said. “We don’t really know yet exactly how it’s going to play out. There’s a lot of nervousness there.”

It’s probably much easier for parents of older students, but Manderly’s daughter, Emylah, is almost 8 and heading into second grade at Kenroy Elementary.

Eastmont, like many other districts, is implementing an online-only start to the school year with classes beginning Wednesday. Students could gradually return to the classroom if health officials deem it safe.

An order to close all schools came from Gov. Jay Inslee in mid-March, followed by a mandate from Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal that learning continue online.

As schools adjusted to this new format, the workload for students was lighter.

“I think they had 40 minutes a day of instruction, and it was just really difficult because she had all this other time in the day that she didn’t have anything to do,” Manderly said. “Trying to come up with enough stuff to fill the day, not being a teacher and still having to work, was really difficult. It sounds like they’re going to provide more of an all-day instruction for this school year.”

Manderly’s job in the Stemilt Growers sales office allows him to work from home. He said he doesn’t know what parents who don’t have that option will do.

It was challenging to balance Emylah’s work with his own.

“Anything that we could do — extra math, anything like that, reading books or just arts and crafts type stuff — anything we could do to try to keep her occupied,” he said. “It wasn’t always successful. It was really difficult and there was probably a lot more TV-watching than there should have been.”

Although not required, schools throughout the state have been encouraged to use remote instruction — especially in counties deemed high-risk for virus spread, like Chelan and Douglas.

Manderly’s wife works at an assisted living facility, and he acknowledged that those residents are at a higher risk for complications should they contract COVID-19. However, he said his daughter attended daycare for the last couple of months and he wasn’t aware of any cases there.

“Hopefully the schools have a plan in place to kind of keep kids separated and monitor kids as well as possible to make sure that they’re looking for the signs of possible infection and isolating students if they need to,” he said.

One thing Manderly liked about the spring was an interactive program where Emylah could send messages back-and-forth with her teacher.

He said online instruction this year will include some pre-recorded videos. He hopes there will be opportunities for students to ask questions about the videos after watching them, though he wishes they could ask in real time.

Manderly said last week that he and his wife were working on getting an area set up for Emylah to focus on her schoolwork without distractions.

Older students are more likely to stay focused and finish assignments without much prodding, he said, and remote learning also affords those students the chance to complete schoolwork at their own pace. But for those his daughter’s age, he would prefer a return to in-person instruction.

“Junior high or high school, there was a lot of stuff that was easier to do that I didn’t necessarily need to spend a whole class period on and probably could have gotten the work done in less time, so I think that might be beneficial to some of those type students,” he said. “But I think the littler ones, they need a lot more interaction with other students and their teachers. ... The youngest students are going to have the most difficulty trying to stay with it and keep focused long enough to get through the classes.”

Building murals together

WENATCHEE — Artists Heather Dappen and Ellen Smith paint murals in their spare time and together they teamed up to cover the 115-foot long, 8-foot high retaining wall overlooking the parking lot at the Wenatchee YMCA.

Their project began last summer walking around town looking at prospective sites. Out of the dozen that made their list, the YMCA in downtown Wenatchee accepted their proposal. “We always wanted to do this wall,” Smith said. They wrote grant proposals and won grants from the Icicle Fund and Woods Family Music and Art totaling $10,000.

Smith teaches art at Pioneer Middle School and Dappen is a freelance graphic designer. They met while working on the Collapse Gallery mural last summer. They maintain the Instagram account @fightthebeige.

A phrase fills the length of the wall in English and Spanish: “Better Together Mejor Juntos.” They see the wording as two aspects of Wenatchee but in one community. “I hope it brings out some feelings of empathy,” said Smith.

They say their favorite part of the project so far is listening to people’s comments as they walk by. Many try to pronounce the saying all in English. They think it will help the community’s white and Latin American population come together.

They’ve had some teenage volunteers who have helped them with the painting as part of the grant proposal but they’ve spent many hours on the site planning and painting, day and night. “It’s the biggest mural we’ve ever done together,” Dappen said. “We’re always looking for something bigger.”

Alaska salmon returning smaller amid climate change, competition with hatchery fish, study finds

SEATTLE — Alaska salmon have gotten smaller in recent decades, a downsizing that appears to be largely driven by climate change and increased competition for food as hatcheries release some 5 billion young fish into the North Pacific each year, according to a study published this month by U.S. and Canadian researchers in the science journal Nature Communications.

Alaska provides the vast majority of the United States’ wild salmon, and their smaller size is reducing the number of eggs that these fish produce and their value to commercial and other fishermen.

That decline encompasses salmon runs all over the state but varies by species and region. Chinook returning across a broad expanse of western and northern Alaska were some 10% smaller than the average size before 1990. Meanwhile in southeast Alaska, sockeye salmon declined — on average — by only about 2%.

Many of these salmon appear to be returning from the ocean earlier to freshwater spawning grounds, and that’s why they are smaller as they reach coastal-area harvest zones.

“There are two ways they could be getting smaller — they could be growing less and be the same age but smaller, or they could be younger — and we saw a strong and consistent pattern that the salmon are returning to the rivers younger than they did historically,” said Eric Palkovacs, study co-author and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

The study used Alaska Department of Fish and Game sampling information gathered between 1957 and 2018 from 1,014 locations across the state. The study looked at 12.5 million size and age measurements from chinook, coho, chum and sockeye, four of the five species of salmon that return to spawn in freshwater.

Chinook are the largest salmon. The study estimates that the body-size declines observed in chinook have decreased egg production by 16%, knocked 21% off their value and reduced by 26% the meals that these fish can provide to rural Alaskans.

“Reductions for other species were less dramatic but still substantial,” the study stated.

Others researchers also have looked at the decline in chinook size. A study by University of Washington and federal fishery researchers published last year in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looked at chinook that returned to spawn in West Coast river systems but migrated to feed in ocean waters much farther north.

That study pointed to orcas, which prey on the chinook, as a big cause for the decline in the size of these fish.

The southern resident orcas, which depend on chinook for their survival, are struggling and are listed as an endangered species. Other causes for the decline of the southern residents, which frequent Puget Sound, include noise masking their ability to hunt as well as pollution.

But off British Columbia and Alaska, orcas are doing well. Fish-eating resident populations have nearly tripled their numbers over a 50-year period, according to Jan Ohlberger, a UW professor of aquatic and fishery science and a co-author of the study.

“Something has to be affecting the survival rates of the oldest fish,” said co-author Daniel Schindler, a UW professor of aquatic and fishery science, in a statement released last year. “It’s clear there are lots of unanswered questions, but if you take a weight-of-evidence approach, most arrows are pointing to marine mammals — and killer whales, in particular.”

Palkovacs notes that the study published in Nature Communications has a different focus — looking at fish caught off Alaska and not those harvested in Northwest waters — and used a different methodology. He said that it’s possible orcas could have an impact in some select populations of salmon returning to spawn in Alaska’s freshwater. But he said there is not good enough data on the diet of Alaska orcas to determine if they are having any kind of broad-scale affect on size of Alaska salmon.

Also, off Alaska, there are lots of reports of orcas feeding on fish other than chinook. Alaska fishermen, for example, report orcas frequently strip black cod from the baited longlines set by Alaska fishermen.

“The limited diet data available for Alaska resident killer whales suggests that they show lower selectivity on Chinook salmon than do killer whales from Washington and British Columbia,” stated the study Palkovacs co-authored.

Much of this study discusses the dual impacts of climate change and competition as salmon migrate from freshwater, where they hatch from young eggs into ocean feeding grounds. This cycle is completed when some fish survive to return to freshwater to spawn.

The researchers say the data they analyzed indicates that many salmon opted to forgo additional time at sea to return at younger ages to spawn. Thus, they had less time to fatten and grow.

The researchers say that may reflect, in part, climate change, which has included periodic warming of ocean temperatures that has reduced the availability of prime food resources. Meanwhile, there has been increased competition among some species of salmon for the food that is available.

Hatcheries in both Asia and North America also have been expanding their release of young salmon to augment the harvests.

The co-authors wrote that there are difficult decisions to be made about the scale of hatchery releases into the ocean, They found that new “tools” are urgently needed to quantify “the apparent trade-offs between the releases of one species and the impacts of size and productivity ... on other species.”