WENATCHEE — With just over a month before the start of the school year, it’s the million-dollar question: Will students attend class in person or remain at home for remote learning?
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said in a news release Wednesday the decision is currently up to local districts. The release came as several Puget Sound schools announced they’ll move to an all-online model for the fall.
The Washington Education Association, which represents educators in the state, on Thursday called for schools to only open remotely.
The Eastmont and Wenatchee school districts are preparing education plans for both scenarios. Plans will be finalized and presented to their respective school boards in the next two weeks before going to the state for approval.
Both districts said the decision will be made in coordination with local health authorities and guidance from the state.
“Where we’re going to be is making sure our staff and our students are safe — that’s going to be the guidepost for our decision making. No matter what, we’re going to have high-quality learning and teaching,” Wenatchee School District Superintendent Paul Gordon said Wednesday.
But uncertainty is the only certainty in a pandemic.
Both Chelan and Douglas counties have seen a significant increase in positive cases over the past month. Health Officer Malcolm Butler told Board of Health members on Monday that the rising infection rates will need to be curbed for schools to reopen.
“So schools are the wind, COVID is the fire,” Butler said. “If the fire is not burning very high, we can tolerate a lot of wind; but if it is burning pretty briskly, that wind is going to spread it all over the place.”
It’s left the local school districts planning for several different education models simultaneously.
“The fundamental concept throughout our plan is the ability to be flexible and fluid,” Eastmont Superintendent Garn Christensen said Wednesday. “What we’re doing one week may look different than what we’re doing another week. Our hope is that we’re able to return to pre-pandemic-type conditions soon but at the same time we don’t want to hurry and put either students’ or employees’ safety in threat or contribute to increased spread in our community.”
Regardless of what happens with the state of the pandemic, Wenatchee School District will offer an all-year, all-online school called Wenatchee Internet Academy this year. The K-12 school started taking applications Monday and had 77 families sign up as of Wednesday.
“This is for those parents and those students who feel that it’s just not safe enough for me to come back, whether for a medical reason or whatever reason they believe this is going to be the best place my student or myself to learn in,” Gordon, the Wenatchee superintendent, said.
It will continue to function throughout the year, independent of other factors such as COVID-19 case rates.
It’s one of a few options the district is preparing for students this fall.
If the district decides it’s safe for in-person instruction, students in preschool through fifth grade would attend 100% of classes in person. Students in grades 5-12 would have an A/B model with some in-person days and some remote-learning days.
WENATCHEE — The Wenatchee Valley Museum & Cultural Center's question-and-answer session with school officials about the start of school this fall, which was scheduled for Monday, has been postponed.
“Every class is going to be really structured so it feels like a school day,” Gordon said. “There’s going to be some leeway on when students do the work but it’s going to be rigorous and it’s going to be a high-quality learning experience, but it’s going to be a hybrid model.”
In-person instruction would come with mask mandates, social distance and rigorous cleaning.
The final scenario envisions entirely remote instruction similar to what was seen in the spring.
The district has made technology improvements to make the transition easier, including the purchase of a learning management system called Canvas, which offers a consistent platform across grades.
It’s also used $800,000 of federal CARES Act funding to purchase new computers for students.
“As we sit here today, we have enough computers, laptops, iPads for every student to be at home with,” Gordon said.
Teachers are also being trained and equipped to transition from in-person to remote learning at any time. That decision — which would be based on data from health officials — could happen before the school year begins or at any point during the school year, Gordon said.
“Where we’re at is still doing a lot of thinking, planning, speaking with a lot of medical experts to make sure we have the most data available to make the most informed decisions possible for the safety of our students, the safety of our staff and the safety of our community,” he said.
If it were needed, Eastmont will soon have the network capacity for all teachers to live-stream directly from their classrooms.
It’s part of a series of technology upgrades the district is implementing for the new year, whether it be all-online or a hybrid model. It began as Washington schools were shut down in the spring. Local districts then pushed toward a one-to-one model that would provide devices to as many students as possible.
“Since then, we’ve been able to purchase enough new Chromebooks that we’ll be issuing Chromebooks to all students that they’ll keep with them through the school year,” Christensen said. “So if on a Wednesday in November it’s fine, but on Thursday we get told by the governor or some other local health entity ‘you need to send all students home,’ they can take their Chromebooks home and they’ll be set to go.”
The district is also building out a plan for reducing the class size for in-person instruction. Christensen compared it to the idea of keeping to one’s immediate family.
“The moment you travel to see a relative or a grandparent, you’ve doubled or tripled your exposure opportunity,” he said.
Limiting the number of teachers or other students a person interacts with every day will also lessen the blow that comes with a possible exposure to COVID-19, Christensen said.
“If we have one cohort that gets an exposure and has to be sent home for 14 days for remote distance-type learning, the opportunity to keep the rest of a school still operating is much higher. That’s the whole goal there,” he said. “If we don’t do that and we go back to no cohorting, in a day one high school teacher could see 150 students. That’s a huge exposure.”
Eastmont is also ordering enough masks for all of its staff and students and reviewing its cleaning procedures.
“As always, our mission is to provide public education. Yet even above that is to make sure students are safe and we want to make sure our employees are safe. That’s our task,” Christensen said.
EAST WENATCHEE — It’s strange to hear face-to-face summer school, as if that is a unique form of teaching, but for Cascade Elementary it’s a new experience during COVID-19.
The district had a chance to test out some of the new policies this summer with a handful of student programs.
Small, socially distanced elementary and high school summer schools were offered, as was student care with the YMCA. There was also a conditioning program for student athletes that was started last week and shut down Wednesday due to possible exposures.
“We’ve had several reports of possible exposures or cases within students’ families,” Christensen said. “Nothing that was tracked back to our programs, but because students were coming and going, and the increase in cases in the county, we shut that down.”
The district has learned a lot from the programs, Christensen said. It’s now refining its final plan to present to the school board at a special meeting at 5:30 p.m. Monday.
Christensen expects possible approval of the plan the following week. It would then go to the state for approval.
At this point, some element of in-person instruction is still in the cards. But Christensen emphasized that the state’s case rate is changing rapidly and could lead to an all-online start for Eastmont — just like what’s happened on the west side of the state.
“That’s being talked about now, but I don’t think districts and boards are quite ready to be at that point of decision in Central Washington,” Christensen said. “There’s still hope in five weeks that the trends will change for our area, because they have moved up and down pretty quickly.”
WENATCHEE — Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday announced rollbacks to his “Safe Start” reopening plan that puts new restrictions on restaurants, bars, gyms and other venues.
Among other guidelines, the rollbacks limit indoor dining at restaurants to members of the same household, ban indoor service at bars, even if food is served, require restaurants to stop serving alcohol at 10 p.m. and require face coverings in all common spaces, like elevators and hallways.
The new restrictions take effect Thursday and come as COVID-19 cases continue to rise.
Statewide, 50,824 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed with almost 1,500 deaths, according to the state Department of Health. Chelan and Douglas counties have had 1,433 cases and 11 deaths, according to the Chelan-Douglas Health District.
Some local business leaders don’t expect the changes to have a huge impact simply because restaurants and businesses were already limited in their functions compared to other counties.
“ ... especially since we’re in this modified Phase 1, very little of what the governor announced yesterday is going to affect what we’ve done because we haven’t been allowed to do a lot of the things he’s rolling back,” Mike Steele, executive director of the Lake Chelan Chamber of Commerce, said Friday. Steele is also a state representative for the 12th Legislative District.
Linda Haglund, executive director of the Wenatchee Downtown Association, shared a similar thought.
“Our restaurants were not at the capacity Phase 3s were at,” Haglund said. “So I see in looking at the biggest impact is — other than the masking requirements — the biggest impact is really to bars and then the service of alcohol after 10.
“And I don’t mean to simplify it or minimize it — those are big changes — but we were at 1.5, we weren’t at 2 or 3 like many of these communities that are going to see a significant impact, right.”
While they don’t see the changes as drastic, they are looking to adapt. Steele said the chamber and the Historic Downtown Chelan Association are working to put about 10 raised platforms in parking stalls in Chelan and Manson to accommodate outdoor seating.
In Wenatchee, the city has allowed restaurants and retail businesses to extend onto the sidewalks, Haglund said, provided there’s 5 feet of space to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“So they can come out onto the sidewalk and open up a little bit and we’re seeing more and more of our restaurants do that,” she said.
Steele opined that small businesses are in a “very interesting point of fatigue.”
“They’ve been working very hard to stay open, working very hard to make as much money as they possibly can in a sort of closed world,” Steele said. “And they definitely are wanting to take care of the consumer and their customers, but they also, in order to survive, need to make a little money so they’re trying to balance all that as carefully as they can, at least up here in the Lake Chelan Valley.”
Ultimately, the new guidelines put restaurants in a tough position — potentially forcing hosts to turn away customers who are not from the same household or ask them to wait until a table opens up.
One restaurant owner in Chelan, who asked to remain anonymous, said she wasn’t going to force her employees to ask customers whether they were from the same household.
“I mean we’ve done everything up to this point, making sure tables are 6-foot apart, having hand sanitizer and requiring masks — which has caused some arguments with customers,” she said. “But personally, it takes it a step too far to ask customers who they live with. It feels like it’s pretty clear some sort of lockdown is imminent, so we’re doing whatever we can to make as much money as we can; it’s a mad cash grab at this point.”
Josh Herschoip, the regional manager for all 12 Buzz Inn’s in the state, said his policy will mandate the host to ask customers if they are from the same household.
“If they aren’t, we’ll sit them at different tables,” Herschoip said Friday. “But if they say they are from the same house, we’ll seat them accordingly. Who are we to tell who lives together and who doesn’t? There are a lot of different situations with roommates.”
The Buzz Inn is in a unique situation, with some of its restaurants also possessing card rooms, which according to Inslee’s guidelines are now closed until Phase 4.
“That’s pretty much an indefinite closure without much of a timeline,” Herschoip said. “Originally we were included in Phase 3 before the governor moved it into Phase 2 and then 1.5 with occupancy requirements. With the closure till Phase 4, it’s looking like that could be next year; I don’t know how we have a business plan with that type of uncertainty.”
“My hope is that card rooms will potentially move back to its initial spot in Phase 3, which could be later this year. That would be beneficial because there are only 48 card rooms left (in the state) that are non-tribal.”
Keeping the doors open and customers safe means enforcing state safety requirements, but that has proven to be a stressful and often burdensome challenge for many at Icicle Creek Brewing Co. in Leavenworth.
Vice president of sales Chris Danforth said the new mandate is also going to have a financial impact on the company. Right now, Icicle is heavily relying on its beer distribution service due to revenue losses from its taproom, which the state has prohibited from running at full capacity, he said.
The taproom, “I wouldn’t say it’s a money-maker right now,” he said.
The taproom used to account for 40% of the company’s revenues. Now it is less than 10%, he said. Statewide shutdowns also hamper wholesale beer sales, given that many bars and restaurants are shut down.
The absence of indoor seating will greatly impact the number of guests that can be accommodated, he said. Most of its seating capacity is indoors.
Being required by state law to enforce rules, such as only allowing people from the same household to sit together, is going to be stressful for staff, he said. These employees are concerned about the safety and health of each other as well as guests.
Enforcing the new rules “puts our staff in a really challenging situation,” he said.
Danforth asked that people have “patience and understanding” for workers at the taproom, adding, “compassion and kindness go a long way.”
Downtown Wenatchee’s Tap and Putt is also in a tricky spot. The business relies heavily on games to draw customers in, but now it will not be able to offer those services until Phase 4 of Washington’s Safe Start plan is reached.
Dylan Buttolph, co-owner of the business, said Inlee’s new requirements were “definitely a big blow.” Normally customers come into the restaurant bringing friends, but now they have to be from the same household.
Buttolph used to be able to host corporate, birthday and holiday parties but that has all been stopped since the initial shutdown in March. Without games, the local hangout is pretty much limited to just draft beer and pizza, he said.
The outdoor seating area is also small, with only two tables that fit three people each. These new requirements are really difficult because 90% of business is based off of games, friends coming in or parties, he said.
With this being the last weekend of games being open, “we’re trying to scramble ... think of a new game plan, almost a new business,” he said.
The Seattle Times contributed to this report.
WENATCHEE — Traffic circles and bike lanes should start showing up on First Street next month as the city looks to improve bicyclist safety and slow down vehicles.
The traffic circles will be installed at the intersections of Garfield, Franklin, Emerson, Delaware, Cleveland and Buchanan. They are similar to roundabouts, but smaller, and people can’t drive on them.
Two 5-foot bike lanes will be added between Chelan and Wenatchee avenues, along with two 3.5-foot buffers to separate bicyclists from other traffic. Parking will be removed from the south side of the street but remain on the north side.
Engineering Services Manager Jacob Huylar said the project is expected to begin early August and be completed in September.
The total project cost is $379,800, including a $342,800 state Department of Transportation grant through its Pedestrian and Bicycle Program.
Design work took place over the fall and winter.
“The concept was developed by Perteet Inc. back in 2016 and 2017 as part of the First Street Bikeway Study,” Huylar said in an email. “Engineering for the project was performed in-house, and staff time associated with the design is reimbursable through our Pedestrian and Bicycle Program grant.”
The City Council on Thursday approved a $283,054 construction contract with Rudnick and Sons of Wenatchee.
Huylar told the council that Rudnick and Sons submitted the lower of two bids when the project was advertised last month. The bid was 1.1% below the engineer’s estimate, but 11% over the grant funding because of design revisions.
The council approved $37,000 in city funding to cover the additional costs.
The city will also add street marking in a few spots to indicate where people should cycle. At Miller Street and Wenatchee Avenue will be bike boxes, which are painted spaces before an intersection to allow bicyclists to cross ahead of other traffic.
A contraflow bike lane will run against vehicle traffic from the RiverWalk Crossing pedestrian bridge to Wenatchee Avenue.
The city was originally going to install curbing along First between Chelan and Wenatchee avenues, along with crushed rock in the traffic circles. However, it decided to go with planters instead of the curbing and stamped, pigmented concrete instead of the crushed rock.
MALAGA — Some residents of the Colockum Road area were told to evacuate their homes Friday afternoon in response to a wind-driven brush fire.
The fire south of Malaga grew to at least 250 acres and was still growing at 6 p.m. Friday, according to Chelan County Emergency Management. The fire was threatening about 60 structures, said Kay McKellar, Chelan County Fire District 1 spokeswoman.
Homes on Kingsbury Road, Colockum Road and Jumpoff Road were issued Level 3 evacuation notices — get out now. Tarpiscan Road residents were issued Level 2 evacuation notices — be ready to leave — about 6 p.m.
Winds in the area were around 20 mph with gusts up to 32 mph, according to the National Weather Service.
The fire was reported at 2:06 p.m. on Kingsbury Road and officials ordered a third-alarm response at 3:35 p.m. Multiple helicopters were on scene alongside ground crews from throughout Chelan County and parts of Douglas County.
For the latest on the fire, visit wenatcheeworld.com.