Wenatchee is a unique place. Not only are we known worldwide for our apples, we are now also the only place where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has conducted two studies simultaneously.

On September 13, the CDC deployed a multidisciplinary team to investigate the COVID-19 outbreak in our counties. A Community Assessment for Public Health Emergency Response (CASPER) study was conducted to evaluate the needs of the communities in Wenatchee and East Wenatchee.

The scientists collected information from households in Latinx and non-Latinx areas. By the end of September, the CDC scientists had collected information and presented their findings.

They found that most Latinx households usually see transmission of COVID-19 within family members while non-Latinx households usually get infected in social circles outside their home. The scientists also found that “a significantly lower proportion of [the] Latinx population felt safe sending their children back to school.” In their recommendations, the CDC scientists said that any school opening plans needed an “adequate and comprehensive communications plan.”

It is unclear that such a communications plan is in place.

First, we see discrepancies between the recommendations from the health district and the plans implemented by the schools. According to the Region 7 K-12 guidance for reopening to classroom instruction, released on August 7, 2020, the Chelan-Douglas, Grant, Okanogan, and Kitittas health departments stated that they “do not support a return to in-person classroom instruction when the county incidence of COVID-19 is above 75 / 100,000 / 14 days for 2 consecutive weeks.” They added that “these thresholds may need to be adjusted should other metrics of disease prevalence (health system capacity, testing capacity, % positive, severe disease) countermand them.” For example, if we increase our health system or testing capacities, then we could reopen schools with local COVID-19 cases being above 75 / 100,000 / 14 days for 2 consecutive weeks. Currently, the number of COVID-19 cases in Chelan and Douglas counties are at 371 / 100,000 / 14 days for 2 consecutive weeks, five times higher than estimated to be safe for reopening and growing rapidly. Furthermore, the health system capacity or the testing capacity has not increased in our hospitals, we may actually be experiencing a shortage.

On November 12, the health officer from the Chelan-Douglas Health District, Dr. Malcolm Butler, stated that we have the highest numbers since the beginning of the pandemic. Although schools are following strict protocols to keep students and staff safe at schools, it may be the behavior in our community that has contributed to the increase of COVID-19 cases.

Second, it appears that the schools have not addressed the fact that at least 4 out of 10 Latinx parents don’t feel safe sendings their kids back to school. Currently, the schools offer the option to remain completely online. However, it appears that families who don’t want to return to in-person instruction and want to remain fully online lack adequate support if they are non-English speakers. Likewise, support for students and families in the bilingual program who want to remain fully online is not available. All students need access to equitable education for long-term success. Students and families who are non-English speakers or who are learning another language may see an increase in opportunity gaps unless they have access to resources and information in a timely manner and in ways that recognize and support their experiences navigating an unknown educational system.

Considering this information, one may question the decision to bring back to school more students and staff. An adequate, comprehensive, and culturally appropriate communications plan is needed to address some of these concerns. Our entire community has to be invested in keeping our schools open. We can work together to keep our students, teachers, and staff learning and teaching the best way they can.

We are indeed a unique place. We have the choice to show we care about others by doing our part to keep students and staff safe at school. Let’s show the world what a caring community looks like.

Karina Vega-Villa, PhD, Immigrant & Latinx Solidarity Group