It’s official: Wenatchee school year to start without in-person teaching

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WENATCHEE — The Wenatchee School District last night approved a so-called “Smart Restart” plan that will launch the 2020-21 school year without classrooms.

After hearing from district staff and medical experts, the board decided the COVID-19 pandemic makes in-person classes too risky this fall. Students will start classes online Aug. 26, and as the area progresses in phased reopening, more students might be admitted to school buildings for limited programs.

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Mark Johnson from Confluence Health started the meeting by sketching out the area’s current coronavirus situation.

“We have recently come to learn that children between the ages of 10 and 19 seem to transmit the virus just as effectively as adults do,” Johnson said in the remote meeting held via Zoom. “And it appears that children under the age of 10 transmit the virus about half as effectively as adults.”

With an average of 28 new cases of COVID-19 discovered in Chelan County each day, Johnson warned of “a reservoir within schoolchildren in congregate settings leading to significant transmission of infection.”

Wenatchee school superintendent Dr. Paul Gordon told the board in twenty-plus years of education leadership, the decision to restart without students in school buildings is one of the most challenging he’s ever had to make.

“There is nothing like in-person instruction,” Gordon said. “We know what a difference we make when students are with us. we know that interaction between a teacher and a student, or staff and our students, is critical to that relationship.”

But mounting infection rates in the district and regular meetings with health officials led Gordon to decide on a remote instruction model, he said, for the safety of students and families.

“It became very apparent that the risk was too great for us to be sending back our students, even for our youngest students.”

Children under 18 make up less than 1 percent of the reported COVID-19 deaths in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of 115,695 COVID-19 deaths assessed by the agency, children from infancy to 17 showed a mortality rate of about 0.1 percent.

“For our district, that would be roughly seven students,” Gordon said.

At the start of school, if the plan is finalized and accepted by the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, Wenatchee School District students would learn through the Canvas educational software system, instructed by their assigned teachers in their designated schools.

School buildings won’t be closed off to students completely. The district plans to offer limited in-person support to students with learning needs that require an Individualized Education Plan; children whose parents need a structured daycare setting; and to middle- and high-school students in need of a structured setting to learn, attended by a classified staffmember. No group would be larger than five students, to accommodate social distancing.

The district plans to explore the ins and outs of the new plan in a virtual townhall for parents and the public at 6 p.m. Tuesday, before the board votes to send its finalized plan to the state. The Eastmont School District and others, including Cascade School District in Leavenworth, are formulating similar plans for online-only classes in the fall.