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Full-time classes return April 19 for Wenatchee K-5 students

WENATCHEE — Kindergarten through fifth-grade students in the Wenatchee School District will return to full-time, in-person learning on April 19.

Middle school and high school students will remain on a hybrid learning schedule for the remainder of the school year.

The change comes after a 3-2 vote Monday evening by the Wenatchee School Board.

The new model was recommended by Superintendent Paul Gordon.

“I understand that there will be frustration with me. I understand that. I fully accept that,” Gordon said during his opening remarks. “But I do believe this is the best decision for our organization.”

The meeting was prompted after Gov. Jay Inslee last week approved a 3-foot social distancing guideline between students in school, a recommendation made by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC previously endorsed a 6-foot rule.

A survey published by the district last week found parents and staff at odds on the matter: a majority of parents were in favor of a return to in-person learning while a majority of school staff were not.

Gordon said 57 staff members indicated that they would take a leave of absence if students returned to school.

Washington Department of Health guidelines allow for K-5 students to return to school full-time with 3-foot distance in communities where COVID-19 transmission rates are considered low, moderate, substantial or high.

For middle schools and high schools the bar is higher and excludes only communities with high transmission rates, which is 200 per 100,000. Chelan County is considered high with a rate of 206 per 100,000.

“If the community rates were lower, I probably would have recommended K-12,” Gordon said. “That’s not where we’re at.”

The hybrid model that high school and middle school students will continue to follow allows for half the students to be on campus. Inslee has ordered all students to return to school in-person in fall 2021 with the 3-foot guideline.

Board members Laura Jaecks, Julie Norton and Martin Barron voted in favor of the motion, while Maria Iñiguez and Michele Sandberg voted against it.

Norton said she’d prefer students in all grades return, but thought it was important to get as many students back in school as possible.

“I think it’s clear that hybrid ... was a Band-Aid; it was never meant to fix everything,” Norton said. “And certainly with the mental health crisis that’s emerged even in hybrid, I think it’s important to get as many students back as we possibly can.”

Visits to the emergency room for non-fatal suicide attempts for patients age 18 and under increased 64% in 2020 compared to the previous year, according to Confluence Health.

Baron called for the board to pick a course of direction in an attempt to ease anxieties that he feels is causing division in the community.

“There will be a little bit of learning as we go and we’ll see that there are students of programs that need extra help that aren’t perfectly taken care of, we can look for resources for them,” Barron said. “And there’ll be things that go wrong. The game will go on.”

In casting a dissenting vote, Sandberg cited concerns that some students, particularly underprivileged students, have benefited from hybrid learning.

“We owe it to them to be paying some extra attention to them during this pandemic, to help them make the gains to catch up with other students who do not have the same struggles, who are not grieving a family member’s loss, who are not trying to make ends meet,” she said.

Adding to Sandberg’s point, Iñiguez noted that students are learning and students who need the attention given during small groups, as many currently get, could fall back if returned to school in-person.

“Hybrid was referred to as a Band-Aid. Well, you know what, the wound’s still there,” Iñiguez said. “I think to take that is just going to put us in a huge setback to be able to start successful with everything in place for full day instruction.”

Jaecks was the deciding vote and called for the community to renew its focus on COVID-19 precautions, like social distancing and mask wearing.

“We as a board cannot make a decision that’s going to benefit the most children in our area if we don’t have the cooperation of every responsible adult out there,” Jaecks said. “Please, please help us. Help us get our kids back in school.”

NCW Bridal Premiere show: Something old, something new

Jobless rates below pre-pandemic levels, but job numbers, labor force changes create complications

WENATCHEE — At first glance, North Central Washington’s unemployment numbers for January look good, with some rates below those recorded a year earlier, before the pandemic’s arrival.

But hold off on the cartwheels, say the state’s regional economists — though a small fist-bump of celebration might be in order.

“It looks like a bit of a mixed bag when looking at the job numbers and labor force numbers,” Paul Turek, state economist with the Employment Security Department, said Friday in an email.

The unemployment rate is only part of the picture, which includes big losses in nonfarm jobs — 3,200 jobs in Chelan and Douglas counties alone since the pandemic hit — in various industry sectors. Also, flux in the labor force that was of concern leading up to the pandemic is still in play, as are changes in agricultural employment.

The state Employment Security Department’s year-over-year statistics, comparing January 2021 with January 2020 released March 16, show:

  • The unemployment rate for the Wenatchee Metropolitan Area, which combines Chelan and Douglas counties, is 7% for January this year, compared to 6.7% last January.
  • Douglas County’s rate is 7.2%, below last January’s 7.4%.
  • Chelan County’s rate ticked upward — 6.9% compared to last year’s 6.3% — but nowhere near double digits experienced in the midst of the COVID-19 shutdowns.
  • Grant and Okanogan counties with an unemployment rate in the 8% range this year. It was in the mid-9% range last year.

All are running above January’s statewide rate of 6.8% and the nationwide rate of 6.3%, but the region’s rates were above state and national numbers in January 2020 as well. At that time, the statewide unemployment rate was 4.6%, while the nation’s was 3.5%.

The below-pandemic level unemployment rates are a good sign, as far as it goes, the economists say. Each county, though, has its own set of economic concerns.

Chelan and Douglas counties

In Chelan and Douglas counties, the labor force dropped by 2,450 from January 2020 to January 2021, with the number of unemployed dropping by 18 people, from last year to this year. The region also dropped 3,200 nonfarm jobs this year over last year, with 2,000 of those in the leisure and hospitality sector.

The good news, said regional economist Don Meseck in his Labor Area Summary report for the Wenatchee Metropolitan Area, is the loss in jobs slowed before restrictions tightened again in November, indicating once restrictions lighten, things should improve.

Turek agreed.

“The unemployment rates for Chelan-Douglas seem to have remained relatively stable over the year in January and are little changed,” he said. “Job numbers look to be stabilizing and are slowly coming back. Things should begin to pick up more as the year progresses and establishments are allowed to open up more.”

Okanogan County

In Okanogan County, before the pandemic, jobs took a hit when Omak Forest Products plant closed in February 2017, Meseck reported as part of a presentation Wednesday to the Economic Alliance of Okanogan County. The county’s agriculture industry also has been losing jobs for the past decade, down 1,260 jobs from 2009 to 2019, though transportation and warehousing added 306 jobs.

The number of Okanogan County jobs took another hit with the pandemic.

“Estimates show that the COVID-related job loss-rate in 2020 was particularly dismal, with the -4.9% loss-rate, indicating a labor market slackening more severe than the -3.8% job loss-rate in 2009 — during the heyday of recent recession,” he said.

On the upside, he noted, the -4.9% nonfarm jobs loss-rate in Okanogan County was not quite as severe as the state’s overall -5.3% nonfarm job loss-rate.

The county also saw a drop in its workforce, down 335 this January over last.

“The local Civilian Labor Force still looked rather weak in Okanogan County this January, with 18,598 residents in the labor force versus 18,933 in January 2020,” Meseck reported. “This is discouraging news.”

On the other hand, he said, the number of unemployed residents decreased, from 1,825 in January 2020 to 1,518 in January 2021. The combination of the two resulted in the drop in the overall unemployment rate.

It’s also a good sign that Okanogan County’s job-loss rates have slowed since August, which is not the case in other areas of the state, Turek said, indicating that “jobs appear to be coming back a little sooner.”

Grant County

In Grant County, jobs also were in flux before the pandemic hit. Manufacturing jobs had been declining for 31 months, from January 2018 through July 2020, but posted gains from August through December last year, according to Meseck’s December Labor Area Summary for Grant County.

All the new jobs in the Grant County area occurred in nondurable goods manufacturing, primarily in the food processing sector. The county’s leisure and hospitality sector added jobs for 23 months from May 2018 through March 2020, before COVID-19 hit.

The county’s labor force grew by 674 residents, from 2019 to 2020, the only county in the central region to add to its labor force.

“The substantial labor force expansion more than offset the marginal rise in the number of unemployment,” Meseck said.

The state will release the next set of statewide and county-by-county unemployment numbers Tuesday. The Labor Area Summaries of those February numbers are expected to be available next week.

Forest Service plans 4,665 acres of prescribed burning in Chelan County

WENATCHEE — Thousands of acres of National Forest land in Central Washington will be targeted for prescribed burning this spring as officials prepare for the summer fire season.

The current plan calls for just over 9,500 acres of burning across Chelan, Okanogan, Yakima and Kittitas counties in early April and May, according to a Forest Service news release.

Planned fires reduce potential fuels for unplanned wildfires. The following sites are planned for prescribed burns in Chelan County:

  • 25 Mile Creek, 382 acres, 18 miles northwest of Chelan
  • Forest Mountain, 173 acres, 11 miles west of Chelan
  • Forest Johnson, 1,254 acres, 3 miles northeast of Ardenvoir
  • Switchback Canyon, 110 acres, 3 miles north of Ardenvoir
  • Dill Creek, 34 acres, 9 miles north of Ardenvoir
  • Crum, 83 acres, 3 miles northwest of Entiat
  • Moe/Roaring Ridge, 128 acres, 1 mile southwest of Ardenvoir
  • Tillicum, 401 acres, 5 miles west of Ardenvoir
  • Fishpole/Natapoc, 550 acres, 1 mile southwest of Fish Lake, WA
  • Upper Peshastin, 650 acres at the summit of Blewett Pass off of Highway 97
  • Mission, 900 acres, 4 miles west of Wenatchee
  • The following sites are planned for Okanogan County:
  • Goat, 839 acres 2 miles east of Mazama
  • Lost Driveway, 419 acres adjacent to Mazama and 7 miles northwest of Mazama
  • Lucky, 56 acres, 6 miles northwest of Winthrop
  • Sherwood, 365 acres, 10 miles northwest of Winthrop
  • Deer, 363 acres, 10 miles northwest of Winthrop
  • Ortell, 302 acres, 10 miles northwest of Winthrop
  • Benzer, 66 acres, 11 miles southeast of Twisp.

Phase 3 challenge | Different metrics could mean different phases for Chelan, Douglas counties

WENATCHEE — A change in how the state measures smaller counties in its pandemic reopening plan could push Douglas County back into Phase 2 while Chelan County remains in Phase 3.

The governor’s latest “Healthy Washington” plan evaluates counties’ COVID-19 metrics separately. In the past, the Chelan and Douglas counties have been measured together, as they are in the same health district, said Kristen Maki, state Department of Health spokesperson.

Why this matters is because Douglas County has a population of fewer than 50,000 people, which means it has a different set of metrics to stay in Phase 3, according to the governor’s reopening plan.

“It is what it is and we don’t have much capacity to change it,” said Dr. Malcolm Butler, Chelan-Douglas Health District health officer, in an email. “It will cause a lot of confusion locally, and I am aware that the governor has a lot more to worry about than confusion in Chelan and Douglas counties.”

All counties moved to Phase 3 on March 22. The state will evaluate the counties — including Douglas County — on April 12 and decide whether they will remain in Phase 3 or move back to Phase 2.

Under Phase 3, spectators can attend sporting events with up to 25% capacity and indoor establishments, such as restaurants, can increase dining from 25% to 50% capacity.

According to a news release from Inslee’s office, to stay in Phase 3, counties with fewer than 50,000 people, like Douglas County, must have:

  • Fewer than 30 COVID-19 cases over 14 days;
  • Fewer than three people hospitalized with COVID-19 over 7 days.

Douglas County had 101 new cases in the last 14 days as of March 25, above the 30 required metric to stay in Phase 3.

Okanogan County faces a similar problem to Douglas County. Okanogan County has seen 48 new COVID-19 cases in the last 14 days as of March 25, according to data from Okanogan County Public Health.

According to the governor’s news release, Chelan County’s population is over 70,000 and so it follows different metrics:

  • An infection rate of less than 200 people per 100,000 person population over 14 days;
  • A hospitalization rate of fewer than five people per 100,000 person population over seven days.

Chelan County’s COVID-19 rate per 100,000 over 14 days was 189.1, slightly below the limit allowed under the governor’s reopening plan.

The move to Phase 3, arrival of nicer weather and presence of a more contagious COVID-19 variant could have all contributed to this increase in COVID-19 cases, but not everything adds up, according to Butler.

Every county in the state transitioned to Phase 3, and King County likely has more cases with variants due to its larger population, Butler said. But instead of an even rise across the state, the rate has flattened.

Butler said it is possible that this rise in cases is just a “blip” and will settle back down in a couple of weeks, or at least he hopes so.

“The good news is that we have more and more vaccine available every day, that masking and distancing is incredibly effective against the new variants, and as long as we all continue to wear our masks and not meet in large groups, we should be able to keep our economy and our schools open,” Butler said in an email.