Wenatchee school leaders table vote on upper-grade in-person classes

The Wenatchee School Board meets April 27, 2021.

WENATCHEE — Middle school and high school students in the Wenatchee School District won’t return to full in-person classes, likely not for the rest of the year.

The Wenatchee School Board did not act on a proposal Tuesday night that would have returned grades six through 12 to the classrooms, with masking and social distancing to address the COVID-19 pandemic. After 30 minutes’ discussion on the matter, no boardmember made a motion to advance a vote.

Boardmember Julie Norton, who’s been the most vocal advocate for in-person classes on the five-member board, said she would not bring the matter forward, seeing it would likely fail. She had argued that mandates from Gov. Jay Inslee and the CDC; lower overall COVID-19 case numbers in the Wenatchee Valley; three feet of allowed social distancing in schoolrooms rather than six; and staffing and transportation figures all made a return to class more feasible.

“I know it caused some anxiety, but I think it is our responsibility, when things change as dramatically as they did, that we have to take a hard look to make sure we made the right decision — or the best decision on the information we have,” Norton said.

Opposing the notion, boardmember Maria Iñiguez said the district should focus its attention on planning for the 2021-22 school year, aiming to return all students to school safely in the fall. For now, she said, “We are not prepared to provide a safe learning environment for our secondary students. … I truly believe we don’t have what is necessary to follow those mitigation strategies to a T, as a district.”

Fellow boardmember Michele Sandberg said the number of students entering quarantine for a positive COVID-19 test or exposure is rising; two students are known to have contracted the virus from in-class transmission during the school year; and the community’s disease-transmission rate, measured in new coronavirus cases per 100,000 members of the population over a seven- or 14-day range, is frequently changing.

“COVID doesn’t really care whether your community rate’s at 200 or 150 or whatever,” she said. “… I know that staff and students are trying, but it’s what people are doing outside. And if we have people who aren’t following (health guidelines) 100 percent, or students are coming to school but they’re not being completely transparent about the possibility that they might have COVID in their house, or symptoms, that puts us at risk.”

Sandberg also cited surveys taken by the district that show student reluctance to leave hybrid learning models to return full-time. Monika Christensen, president of the Wenatchee Education Association, told the board that in a survey last week of 215 secondary teachers in her union, only 17 percent supported returning to in-person classes immediately.

Kindergarteners through sixth-graders in the district have been attending in-person cohorts since April 19, after that model was approved by a board vote in late March. In the Eastmont School District, students in grades five through 12 are scheduled to return to in-person learning May 5.