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Online school start will still be based in the classroom

NCW — Classrooms across the region won’t all be sitting empty when school starts in about three weeks, despite what appears will be a region-wide, if not statewide, remote start to the school year.

What’s the back-to-school plan?

NCW — Here is a rundown of some of the back-to-school plans currently in the works for districts across the region. In most cases, districts have decided to move forward with an all-online start that will transition to a phased-in hybrid model when COVID-19 case numbers reach levels acceptable to local health officials. The details, though, are still in progress.

Some teachers will use the learning space much as they have in the past, complete with desk, bulletin boards and a daily schedule. They will deliver instruction to students online, but the classrooms will be prepped and ready for students.

“All staff will be expected to be on site if we are in a remote model when we start the school year,” Chelan Superintendent Barry DePaoli said of his district’s plans. The details are still being finalized, he said, but the basic guidelines are in place.

The Cascade School District in Leavenworth is proposing a similar scenario.

Teachers will have the opportunity to work from their classrooms, said Superintendent Tracey Beckendorf-Edou, all part of the “continuous learning” model designed to allow students to shift between remote learning and in-person, face-to-face instruction as needed during the pandemic.

“I think it’s important for the public to understand that when school is taking place under a model of Continuous Learning, staff are working very hard,” she said. “It is not a vacation for them and they are working extraordinarily hard to establish and sustain relationships, promote student learning, and make positive differences in students’ lives.”

The classroom connection is one of the details starting to emerge as school officials from Leavenworth to Orondo and Quincy to Manson move to finalize back-to-school plans. Child care options and opportunities for in-person instruction also are being explored.

Wenatchee and Eastmont schools announced plans early last week to start the year Aug. 26 with all online instruction. Other school districts in Chelan and Douglas counties are moving in the same direction, citing the increase in COVID-19 case reports and advice from public health officials.

Most districts report they are anticipating further direction from the state superintendent and governor sometime early this week that likely will resolve any uncertainty about the initial steps.

All districts would prefer a face-to-face start, said Michelle Price, superintendent of the North Central Educational Service District, which provides support to all 29 school districts in Chelan, Douglas, Okanogan and Grant counties.

“The only reason a decision to open remotely is happening is based on the regional spread of the virus and the risk to students and staff,” she said. “Districts would rather be able to bring in small groups of students for direct instruction, academic support, social and emotional connections — all critical to the healthy development of a child.”

Since that doesn’t seem to be an option, the districts are moving forward with remote learning plans that will shift later to face-to-face instruction. The plans are custom-fit to each district, building on the lessons learned during emergency school closures this spring, she said.

“Districts have been surveying their community, holding stakeholder meetings, and working with their staff on what went well and what didn’t with the emergency transition to remote learning,” Price said. “Literally turning on a dime from in-person instruction to remote was no easy task for staff, parents or the children. What we have heard is that there needs to be more opportunities for direct instruction by the teacher and that time must be robust, structured and consistent. Two-way communication must be intentional and scheduled. Grading practices must give students the message that what they are working on matters and is important for them to accomplish at a high standard.”

Districts also are offering tech training and support for parents, as needed.

The hope is the remote option will be short-lived.

“This virus and the response to it has citizens across our community torn,” Price said, with debate over the balance between personal rights and public health. “The spectrum runs from fear of leaving the home to thinking this is a hoax and everything in between. Our districts must find a way to meet their families where they are and communicate what the CDC guidelines are that they must follow to provide for a safe learning environment for students and staff.”

Training for water rescues

WENATCHEE — Chelan County Fire District 1 has recently trained a dozen of its firefighters to be swiftwater rescue swimmers.

“We’ve gotten to that point where we have manpower and we have a lot going on,” said Training Officer Al Torres. “There’s a lot of recreation going on. Douglas County, they’ve had their (rescue) swimmers. So the chief decided that now would be a good time to enter the water, no pun intended.”

The firefighters have participated in three eight-hour training sessions over the past several months to ready themselves for rescues in the Wenatchee or Columbia rivers. There have been two recreation-related drownings on the Wenatchee River this year: one in Leavenworth and the other near Monitor.

In late May, trainees took part in similar training on a whitewater-heavy section of the river between the Dryden Dam and Rodeo Hole in Cashmere.

“We actually swam in the Wenatchee River, they made us swim through rapids in Rodeo Hole and really get to know our equipment and the river and what it does,” Torres said. “We had to know about paddling through the river and down the river and what to look for in the river.”

They practiced scenarios as they navigated the four-mile stretch of river, like tossing throw bags to people in the water and another, “contact rescues,” in which a swimmer attached by rope to others on shore reaches a patient stranded in the river, he said.

In late July, they again trained in throw bags and contact rescues,but this time added “gridding” to the agenda. That’s when rescue swimmers work together to locate someone who might be trapped underwater.

“On their first dive, they might determine which way the water is moving and that might determine which way they’re going to work toward and then it’s just, you know, up and down, up and down until they are able to locate the victim,” Torres said.

They were assisted in their training by rescue swimmers with Douglas County Fire District 2, which has had swiftwater swimmers for four years, Torres said.

“So working together with them, we have a pretty good water rescue operation here in the lower part of the valley,” Torres said.

The Chelan County Sheriff’s Office is the lead agency when it comes to water rescues, he said, and the fire district would work with them as needed.

The fire district will have at least three rescue swimmers on each shift, Torres said, with one shift staffed by four rescue swimmers.

“So, we try to have every day covered where at least somebody can make an attempt to make a rescue or make a contact if that happens,” Torres said.

To avoid needing a rescue, Torres advises those on the river to wear a personal flotation device.

“That’s the biggest thing,” Torres said. “And respect the water.”

Okanogan County faces deaths and surges in COVID-19 positives

BREWSTER — Okanogan County saw 423 positive COVID-19 cases in the last half of July and the deaths of two Gebbers Farms migrant workers.

The county recorded more than half its total 724 COVID-19 positives in the last two weeks of July, said Lauri Jones, Okanogan Public Health community health director. The uptick in positive was partially due to the increased availability of tests, but also because of the county moving to Phase 2 under Governor Jay Inslee’s Safe Start Washington plan, Jones said.

“When we went to Phase 2, people took that as opening the floodgates and it’s gone ballistic since then,” she said.

In July, the county also saw two deaths, one on July 8 and the other on July 31, both Gebbers Farms employees here under the H2A program, said Amy Philpott, a Gebbers Farms spokesperson.

It hasn’t been confirmed that either death was due to COVID-19, Philpott said. The 63-year-old man who died on July 31 was quarantined with COVID-19 symptoms. The man who passed on July 8 was in his 30’s from Mexico, and his death was associated with COVID-19, according to the county public health department.

Of the county’s 724 positives in the last five months, 452 of them have been in Brewster, according to the public health department’s website. Omak is second with 98 positives. The number of positives in that city, though, may be because it is the only city in Okanogan to receive mass testing.

People are quick to blame one industry, such as orchards and packing houses, but that isn’t accurate, Jones said. Preliminary data from the health department is reporting about a 3% infection rate among Gebbers’ migrant workers. The health department hasn’t finalized those numbers, she said.

When Confluence Health and Three Rivers Hospital did mass testing in Brewster, they reported about a 30% infection rate, Jones said. The virus is being transmitted by people not following safety guidelines and participating in large events, she said.

For example on July 24 and 25, 150 people had a party on private property in Okanogan County, she said.

“And I’m ticked,” Jones said. “People need to remember that we’re in Phase 2 and we’re at risk of losing Phase 2 if people don’t start complying.”

Gebbers Farms has been working hard to protect its employees, Philpott said. At the start of the pandemic, the company came up with a three-part program for combating COVID-19 called, “Prepare, Prevent and Protect.” They received input from an infectious disease specialist, she said.

“Gebbers Farms understands and takes their role as a community leader very seriously,” she said. “This is why the company is committed to do everything it can to minimize the impact of this unprecedented pandemic on the community.”

To prepare their employees, the company has been informing all its workers of any new COVID-19 information, she said. It has also stayed on top of evolving health recommendations, she said.

The company’s prevention efforts involve providing employees with personal protective equipment and if they are not living in company housing the company tells them not to come to work if they feel sick, Philpott said.

The company cannot force its employees to get tested for COVID-19 and employees don’t have to tell them if they tested positive, she said.

Migrant workers, who live in company housing, are quarantined for three to five days upon arriving in the United States to see if they present any symptoms, she said. They then receive a kit with COVID-19 information, masks, gloves and sanitizer.

They are placed in pods of 14 people, who are the only individuals they can associate with, Philpott said. It used to be pods consisting of 42 people, but the company recently reduced it.

“They do everything together and it is like a closed community, she said. “They travel together, their cabins are together, they have a designated recreation area that is per pod, the bathing and cooking areas are together.”

The company has cleaning crews that sanitize all of the housing every day and each pod has its own driver and bus to take them to their work sites, Philpott said.

Everyone, both migrant workers and U.S residents, have their temperatures taken each day when they arrive at work, she said.

If anyone does get symptoms then it moves to its “protect” effort, Philpott said. U.S. residents are told to stay home and self-quarantine until they meet the criteria of their doctors.

If it is a migrant worker, they get sent to a quarantine camp where they can choose to get tested, Philpott said. If they get tested and it is positive, they are sent to the isolation camp. If they choose not to get tested, they must remain in quarantine for 14 days and until aren’t showing symptoms anymore.

The company provides a driver and a bus with plexiglass at the ready for anyone who wants to get tested, she said. The driver is wearing personal protective equipment and a TYVEX suits, which are white and go over people’s clothes.

But, despite all the company’s actions, it cannot keep its employees locked up or prevent them from going out into the community, Philpott said.

“We do strongly encourage them to adhere to all health recommendations all of the time,” she said. “We also encourage them to get tested. But we don’t control what they do on their own time.”

Malaga couple arrested in Colockum Fire

MALAGA — A man and woman from Malaga are accused of starting a brush fire that burned almost 3,000 acres in the Colockum.

Detectives with the Chelan County Sheriff’s Office believe Wade Ryan Hawkins, 29, and Kirsten Bree Horner, 29, set fire to brush July 24 at milepost 0.6 on Kingsbury Road south of Malaga, according to a probable cause affidavit filed Monday in Chelan County Superior Court.

The Colockum Fire burned 2,967 acres, forced residents in the immediate area to evacuate their homes and cost $2.1 million to extinguish.

Hawkins and Horner were believed to be having problems with their landlord, the affidavit said. They were living in an RV on the 7200 block of Colockum Road, about 2 miles from where the fire began, and were seen driving from the area at high speeds not long before the fire was reported.

In July 24 interviews with detectives, the couple denied any involvement in the fire.

Hawkins sold his property on the 7200 block of Colockum Road in May and, according to the affidavit, was given 30 days by the new owners to move his RV off the property.

The new property owner intended to meet with Hawkins on July 24 about the situation and called RiverCom Dispatch about 1:35 p.m. to request help from the sheriff’s department, the affidavit said. Soon after the call, Hawkins and Horner left their RV on the property and drove away in Hawkins’ Ford F-250 at a high rate of speed.

Smoke from the fire was reported about a half hour later.

Hawkins and Horner were arrested Friday on suspicion of first-degree arson and are being held at the Chelan County Regional Justice Center. They again denied any involvement in the fire.

Central Washington Hospital diverts some COVID-19 patients elsewhere

WENATCHEE — COVID-19 patients are treated in a wing on the third floor of Central Washington Hospital, isolated from the rest of the patient population.

In the past few weeks, capacity in that wing has several times grown “very, very thin,” said Dr. Jason Lake, chief medical officer-elect for Confluence Health, which operates the hospital.

The hospital could expand its capacity, but doing so would require a significant reshuffling of staff and reduction of other non-emergency services.

That’s a last resort and, in the meantime, Central Washington Hospital is balancing its COVID-19 population by coordinating with other facilities in the region.

When the local need was low in May and June, it took in patients from Yakima and Kittitas counties. As the number of seriously ill patients in North Central Washington has increased, it’s now rerouting some patients bound for the hospital to other facilities in Seattle or Spokane.

With a record 26 admitted patients last week, Central Washington Hospital went on diversion status, meaning it would decline requests from other hospitals looking to transfer patients — both COVID-related and otherwise — here for care.

It’s a tool the hospital has used periodically during the pandemic and more frequently in the past month. Last week’s diversion ended late Friday night as the patient count dropped slightly.

Due to staffing limitations, the hospital went back on diversion status Monday afternoon.

“Diversion happens when we have limitations either on the physical number of beds in our facilities or, frequently, the number of staff and nurses that can take care of those patients in those beds,” Lake said.

As a regional health care provider and Level 3 trauma center, other health care facilities commonly transfer patients to Central Washington Hospital.

Under diversion status, those other transfer requests, including for COVID-19 patients, would be rerouted to other health care facilities in the state. Much less commonly, a patient who comes to Central Washington Hospital’s emergency room could also be diverted to another facility for care.

The hospital saves some space for potential stroke patients, cardiac patients and trauma patients, where time is of the essence and life-saving care is needed quickly.

In the month of July, the hospital diverted 11 COVID-19 patients, who would have otherwise likely been admitted, to different facilities. Eight were Okanogan County residents, one was from Chelan County, one was from Grant County and one was from Yakima County.

The COVID-19 patient count has hovered between 20-25 for the past two weeks with the ICU and ventilated count around six to eight at a time. In critical circumstances, the hospital could stretch its staff to treat up to 25 patients in the ICU, Lake said.

The hospital on Monday had a total patient count of 136. Of those, 20 were COVID-19 patients and the rest were admitted for non-related care.

Early in the pandemic, temporary hospitals were set up in Washington to treat a potential surge of COVID-19 hospitalizations many feared would overwhelm existing health care facilities.

Hospitalizations dropped and the temporary locations — including one at CenturyLink Field in Seattle — were disbanded.

With the number of seriously ill patients increasing once again, health care organizations are now relying on this statewide coordination to shuffle patients around existing facilities.

Diverted COVID-19 patients in the area are re-routed by Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, which is handling bed management in Eastern Washington. Facilities looking to transfer non-COVID-19 patients often have to call around to find space, Lake said.

Central Washington Hospital could expand its capacity to treat more COVID-19 patients, but that would require a significant reshuffling of staffing — and would temporarily halt other non-emergency services.

“So we really are relying on our health care partners across the state to accept some of our patients so we don’t have to start ratcheting down the other care that we provide,” he said.

Along with other providers in the state, Confluence Health implemented such changes in the spring. It led to reports of some people delaying care they actually needed.

Stopping non-urgent services also created $26 million in operating losses by mid-April and forced temporary salary reductions for around 14.7% of its workforce.

Nearly all of the non-urgent services have resumed since then. As of Monday the only service that was reduced was outpatient rehabilitation, whose staff is assisting the ICU, Lake said.

Serving the health care needs of the community is its priority, so the organization is doing its best not to shut down any other care, Lake said.

“Of course, if we get to the point where our other partners in the state start to get near capacity, then we’ll probably make the decision on the state level to start decreasing other non-COVID care,” he said.