Kennewick cosmetology school reopening after some students protest conditions

A cosmetology school in Kennewick was planning to reopen services to the public until a group of students protested the decision, forcing the school to cancel classes.

A group of students protested inside Victoria’s Academy of Cosmetology on Monday refusing to begin client services that afternoon. The protesters said the school offers inadequate personal protective equipment, cleaning protocols aren’t followed by students and staff, and many of their clients are elderly or high-risk for the coronavirus.

Ariella Deleon participated in the protest and said starting client services is a risk she is not willing to take.

“We’re not comfortable because there’s a lot going on in that building that is unsafe and unsanitary and the staff themselves aren’t following it,” Deleon said.

Victoria’s Academy of Cosmetology closed for five weeks when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020. The school resumed classes online offering students about 25 hours a week to focus on theory learning. They were also instructed to follow COVID-19 safety meetings that explained health protocols that would be in place when in-person classes restarted. Deleon said not all students participated in the safety meetings and staff aren’t tracking what students have been briefed.

Students Melissa Harvey and Ernesto Parra said they participated in the safety meeting that last for at least an hour and learned what would be expected when classes restarted.

“It was pretty detailed on how it was going to be when we got back to school and how we’re going have to sanitize and everything,” Harvey said, “Nobody could be sitting close together, huddled and groups close together. We couldn’t use the lunch room anymore. Everybody would have to take breaks outside, masks at all time. We went through that and then we had to sign a paper saying that we understood all of that.”

Harvey listed more ways students and staff had sanitize and re-sanitize areas throughout the building to ensure everything was clean. Parra said as a massage therapy student, regardless of COVID-19, you learn how to clean your space before and after a client.

“We know how important it is,” Parra said, “I feel like I do a good job and I know the people around me do too.”

The school’s COVID Site Director, Karly Lalonde, helped establish the safety training for students as well as the reopening plan that was approved by the Benton-Franklin Health Department. Several areas of the school are dictated as ‘off-limits’ so students have to social distance for one another. The school is allowed to operate at 25% capacity but staff say they are operating below that percentage. Classrooms have been modified with only one chair per 6-foot table, bottles of sanitizer at all desks and stations, and labels throughout the building on the floor and walls reminding people stay 6-feet apart.

“We’ve done not only the minimum, but have gone above and beyond that to ensure the maximum amount of safety that we can provide,” Lalonde said.

Each area of the school has seen modifications that fit each program. Massage students have several rooms with tables allowing them to stay a safe distance from each other. Harvey and Parra said they have been waiting to get back into the classroom and want to work on clients. Massage students are set to begin seeing clients in two weeks. The student protesters are asking staff to also wait to take clients in either a couple weeks or once Benton County moves into phase two of Gov. Inslee’s Safe Start Plan.

“We just want to wait a couple more weeks until numbers are down a little bit more until we feel a little more safe and the protocol is more enforced,” Deleon said.

In the meantime, students want to practice their skills on mannequins, but staff say that won’t help. The COVID Site Director, Karly Lalonde, said she also serves as the Education Director for Victoria’s Academy of Cosmetology and mannequins are not like the real clients they should be training for.

“We would be doing them a disservice with their money that they spend on their education to limit it to mannequins only,” Lalonde said, “So we are really trying to give them an excellent education while being mindful that there is a pandemic out there.”

Owner of Victoria’s Academy of Cosmetology, Danae Heuett said they are also restricted on how much distance learning and theory learning the school is allowed to offer under WA Dept. of Education guidelines.

“We are actually limited on how much theory, so non-hands-on education, they can do,” Heuett said, “They have to have practical learning. They have to meet certain requirements and all of our programming and they can’t do it all on mannequins or fake bodies for massage. It’s our obligation to educate them properly so that they can get a job and be successful.”

The non-hands-on learning for students was taught through five weeks of distance learning bu students did have the option to take a leave of absence (LOA) if they didn’t want to participate in distance learning through Zoom. Heuett said if students chose to take LOA time, their graduation date would be pushed back.

It’s basically a pause in their programming and then they can come back,” Heuett said, “Whatever amount of time they took off, it pushes out their graduation date that many calendar days.”

Students are only allowed 180 LOA days for a school year due to standards set by the WA Department of Education.

“As soon as you reach 180 days,” Heuett said, “We will have to ask you to withdraw or drop you, which is not anything we like to do at all.”

Deleon said some student protesters feel like they are being pushed out because of the LOA limit. She said due to distance learning and less hours in a classroom, her graduation has been pushed from November to January. She said if students continue to take LOA time, they will have to stay in school longer and take out federal aid.

“A lot of us are disabled and have family members in the hospital and we’re still being forced to do this or threatened,” she said, “And still have to owe money back to the school for leaving.”

After cancelling classes for the day, Heuett met with her team Tuesday to decide what would be best for students and staff members. She said with only 10% of students speaking out with concerns, she decided to reopen her doors.

“I know that there’s some students pushing for us to not do client services, but we had 90% of our students contacting us and messaging us saying this isn’t fair, we want to be there, we want to be working on our program,” Heuett said, “And at the end of the day, I had to factor that majority of the students want to be here.”

The school will reopen Wednesday to offer another COVID-19 training session to students. Deleon said she will show up to class but she will still refuse to do client services until she feels safe.

“The ones who do feel safe, they can have the appointments,” Deleon said, “Take the appointments, just the ones who are unsafe don’t want to.”