red cross

Brewster school staff helps the Red Cross distribute food.

Districts offer support for impacted families

OKANOGAN – The Cold Springs and Pearl Hill fires caused delays and closures for area schools at the start of a year already disrupted by COVID-19 considerations.

And in some districts, school families lost their homes.

“We have had confirmation of six families losing their homes,” said Okanogan School District Superintendent Ashley Goetz. “The district opened schools on Wednesday to have staff and counseling support available for students and families. Building counselors will be working to connect with families through the next couple of weeks; longer if necessary.”

“Our Omak School District counselors and JOM (Native American program) advisers have been reaching out to students who were impacted, either directly or through other family members,” said Omak Superintendent Michael Porter. “I don’t personally know how many families were impact, but we are trying to get a clear picture so that we can provide support where needed.”

Some students in the Bridgeport district also lost their homes. Superintendent Scott Sattler couldn’t be reached for comment.

Information about losses in the Brewster and Mansfield districts, and Paschal Sherman Indian School also was unavailable.

Several school district within Okanogan and Douglas counties canceled classes Sept. 8, the day after Labor Day, because of power and Internet outages, and fire threats.

Districts with closures included Brewster, Bridgeport, Inchelium, Mansfield, Methow Valley, Okanogan, Omak, Pateros and Tonasket.

Okanogan launched its school year, with a remote learning model, on Sept. 9. Pateros also returned to remote classes Sept. 9.

Omak, Brewster and Mansfield put off classes until Sept. 14. Bridgeport canceled classes through Sept. 18 and Paschal Sherman Indian School put off its opener until Sept. 23.

“As superintendent of the Brewster School District, I don’t take the closure of our schools lightly,” said Brewster Superintendent Eric Driessen. It creates a significant disruption to the lives of many.”

But disrupted phone service, intermittent Internet service and the potential of continued power outages all figured into his decision.

“Based upon this information, not only does it seem unreasonable to expect that these conditions will serve as the optimal launch pad for a successful year of teaching and learning, we feel it adds to an already stressful time,” he said.

Goetz said an Okanogan district team visited Malott HUD housing, where three homes burned, last week but didn’t have any luck connecting with families.

Julia O’Connor, the district’s McKinney-Vento Act homeless program coordinator, “has been working diligently to connect with families and provide grocery cards, hygiene kits and contact information for further resources,” Goetz said.

When classes began last Wednesday, the district served about 70 percent of its high school students, she said.

“Teachers are being flexible and supportive of students with connectivity issues through this difficult time,” she added.

She said the reason behind returning to school, rather than waiting a week as some other districts did, was to provide support to students and families. She reiterated that the district will be flexible with schoolwork, considering power, phone and Internet interruptions.

“Our students have had their lives uprooted this year with COVID,” she said in a letter to staff and the community. “First, the abrupt shutdown, then no return to school, and now the fires. The thing Okanogan does best in a time of need is band together as a community.

“Our students rely on their schools and teachers to get them through tough times. We need to encircle them with our wonderful school family now, maybe more than ever. When we are in school we can better assess the needs of our families and begin to direct resources and support their way.”

In addition, starting up Sept. 9 allowed the district to provide meals to those in need and offer emotional support. In-person counseling for students was approved by Okanogan County Public Health, Goetz said.

The district said high school leadership students assembled thank you baskets for local first responders.

Omak’s Porter said the decision to wait until Sept. 14 was based on families’ stress levels and issues with Internet connectivity.

“When we start … we are going to focus on making sure that we can connect with our students and develop relationships,” he said late last week. “We want to use the first few days to understand how our students are doing in the midst of the chaos that our community has experienced and provide needed support.”

Meal service was offered last week at North Omak Elementary and the middle/high school cafeteria. Meal delivery was to begin Sept. 14.

The Inchelium district, impacted by the Inchelium Complex fire, closed Sept. 8.

Meal service at the school continued through the week, with the district inviting people displaced by the fires to stop by, too.

No further information was available.

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