Chelan School Board votes 3-2 to reopen in December

Students speak out

by Richard Uhlhorn

Chelan School District has approved the reopening of its 7th through 12 grades

Ella Polley, a senior at Chelan High School, eloquently stated a students perspective of why the Chelan School District should allow the 9th through 12th grade students back in the building for in-school education.

She stated that she never imagined spending her senior year in high school rolling out of bed at 10 a.m. and looking at a black computer screen for five hours. “This is destroying our emotional and mental health,” she told the approximately 100 people attending the board’s ZOOM meeting on Tuesday evening, November 24. “We are living in a constant cycle of loneliness every day,” said Polley. “It is impacting or learning itself.”

As Vice President of the Associated School Body, Polley described a recent video the ASB produced with students at home. “There was a lot of negative comments,” she said. In the end, Polley pleaded with the board to “please consider letting us back into school. I miss my teachers and friends.”  She also stated that she is concerned she’s not being prepared to enter college next year. “These online classes are not preparing me for college.”

Seniors Elly Collins and Adelyn Gueller chimed in to the conversation also. Both stated that letting the students back into the classroom in December, just before the holidays, would be a good test run on how students would handle the protocols set in place. “We could focus on things are going to work,” said Gueller. Superintendent Barry DePaoli replied that this was the board’s thought also.

Senior Katie Rainville talked about educational equity for students. “I’m a hands on learner,” said Rainville who wants to see the equity issue addressed for all students. DePaoli replied that all students are different and how difficult it is to have a sort of equity for all students.

Senior Elly Collins told the board that she was going to be attending an out-of-state college in the fall and is concerned that the online learning model is not preparing her properly for college. Gueller added that “It’s really hard to do online. I know students who have no motivation.”

DePaoli thanked the students for speaking up. “I appreciate the student’s voices.”

Teachers, parents and the community at large was asked for comments also. The comments ranged between proponents and opponents to reopening the 7th through 12th grade classes.

Jill Malone, a special education teacher in Brewster and past Chelan graduate, said that Brewster is working on a full schedule Tuesday through Friday for K-12th grades and said the District has had no positive COVID cases. Malone gave the Chelan School Board several tips that Brewster has instigated like off-setting times for changing classes to keep the hallways less crowded and stairs to the upper level of the school made into one-way thoroughfares.

Malone stated that it is her experience that students working online don’t feel like they are getting an education. “They are struggling.”

Chelan resident Laura Clinton thanked those students who spoke out and stated that on November 19, Dr. Redfield , CDC, does not recommend closing schools to only online learning. “This is coming directly from the CDC. Open or make plans to open” she said. “Our kids deserve this. Right now we are failing them.”

Michelle Fanton, a resident, implored the District to provide equity, saying that a lot of working parents are struggling. Katherine D’Orazio added that many parents don’t have a choice except to sent their children to school because they are working parents. “You have to think about all students. There is no choice for working parents.” She wondered if cameras could be placed in the classrooms so those students learning at home could stay connected to their classes and teachers after the reopening. DePaoli said he was a little concerned about zooming from a classroom, but admitted that kids at home are really struggling.

Camisha Hughbanks stated that her kids were succeeding only because she is facilitating that success. “The National CDC is telling us to get kids back in school for their emotional health,” said Hughbanks. “They are not spreaders.” She told the board to let these students back into the classrooms so they can associate with their peers.

Ben Williams, Lake Chelan Winery, said they have been working with the pandemic since March and have served thousands of people since then. “We haven’t had a single COVID case traced back to us,” said Williams. “From a business standpoint and my empirical observation, the risks are very, very low.”

Cynthia Bertomeu, an 8th grade English teacher in Chelan, said that as a staff member, she has been following all the procedures and said, “I know my kids need to be back in class.” She added that the online Calvert program sucks in her opinion. “I see a herd of kids with no masks hanging out together and as a parent I’m concerned.” However, she says her classroom is ready for the hybrid model and her kids would be separated by six feet.

Chris Hughbanks, a Chelan businessman, said the District has not been serving the kids. Life has been going on and we’ve left our kids behind,” said Hughbanks. He added that if Mead School District with 10,000 students can make it work, the Chelan District needs to step up and provide its students in-classroom study.

Jill Malone, Brewster, added that one of the things that has made Brewster’s experiment successful is that if a student is coughing or sneezing, they are sent home and each student is given a temperature check every day.

School board member Lynda Foster stated that the pandemic has created a loss of normalcy. Brook Issac, a resident with students, said that she is seeing depression set in and that the mental health of the students is very important. Senior Ella Polley added, “We need something that gives us a little hope.”

During the initial board discussion, DePaoli stated that the Health District is not in favor of reopening school during the holiday season and current surge of the virus. DePaoli added that Moses Lake School District was back to remote because over 100 of its staff has been quarantined.

“I’m proposing that we continue with the 7th and 8th grade returning on December 7 and the high school on December 14,” Depaoli told his Board. “It is a massive decision, but to date we’ve had not transmission (of the virus) in our schools. At this point, I think we can keep our students safe.” He added that parents who don’t want to send their kids back will still be served remotely.

Board member Kim Thorpe urged the board to allow students from 7th through 12th grade to restart on December 7. Depaoli replied that looking at over 600 students who would be returning means a lot of logistics have to be worked through.

Board member Agustin Benegas who also works at the hospital, felt that it was important to keep kids at home until after the holidays.

Board member Ken Brunner agreed with Benegas and said, “It’s a little too dangerous now. I understand the social and emotional (toll), but there is a reason Dr. Butler said this is not a good time.”

Board member Lynda Foster stated that the decision was not easy. “We need to step forward. There is a protocol that needs to be followed.” She added that kids need to be back together to re-establish their relationships with teachers, but that they also need to be responsible.

Depaoli added that Mead’s Principal remarked at how great his kids have been at following protocols. “Sometimes we underestimate our kids.”

Staff comments ranged from concern to approval. KE (Kirk Einspahr) said he was very concerned about bringing students back. “As an older staff member with a wife who has health conditions, I’m not in favor.”

Lisa Gleasman asked what anyone thinks is going to be different in January.

Benegas replied that a vaccine is coming. “By January we will know where the numbers are going,” he replied. “From my perspective, what are we willing to sacrifice.”

Second grade teacher Jennifer Polley said she feels that every student needs to come back and work with their teachers. She wondered if those who stayed home could zoom into the classroom from home.

Principal Brad Wilson said that would be dependent on the subject area but Polley restated her comment that the teacher who was concerned could change places with the students and teach from home while the students were in the classroom. “Trading spots… it wouldn’t be that much different.”

Science Teacher April Sagle remarked that the Methow district is batch testing its teachers every two weeks and after Thanksgiving is going to test every student. DePaoli said he was aware of Methow’s protocol but that they are a bit smaller than the Chelan district. “It’s something we can look into.”

Towards the end of the board meeting DePaoli thanked everyone for having a civil discourse for over an hour. “This has not been an easy time for our board,” said DePaoli. “They will vote their conscious and I want you to respect their decision. There is no right or wrong here.

Chairman Jeff Fehr said, “We are going to take care of this issue right now.” The Board members voted 2-to-2 with Lynda Foster and Kim Thorpe voting to reopen and Ken Brunner and Agustin Benegas opposing the reopening leaving the tie breaker to Chairman Fehr who stated that the District’s primary job is to educate students.

Fehr said that the Health District does not align with the School District. “We need to maintain a balance and take the students safety into a broader context,” said Fehr. He added that the psychological, emotional and social health of the students has merged into a situation where not opening was doing harm. “I am in favor of the motion and the motion carries,” said Fehr. “This decision is not set in stone,” said Fehr. “It is a balancing act in flux.”

However, Fehr called for a Special Board Meeting on Tuesday, December 1 at 6 p.m.

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