A handbook of district emergency procedures sits in the Ketchikan Gateway Borough School District offices on Mar. 13, 2020. (Eric Stone/KRBD)

School officials in Ketchikan are working on a plan on how to resume classes in the fall while taking precautions against spreading coronavirus. And they’re faced with a dilemma that pits traditional school values against public health.

On the one hand, putting dozens of kids together in a room could increase the risk of spreading COVID-19. While the illness is usually less severe in children, kids can spread the disease to elderly relatives or other community members.

One solution is to, of course, not have kids in the building and conduct classes with videoconferences and online lessons.

But many parents have said they don’t want distance learning and are pushing to have kids go back to the classroom.

Against the backdrop of those two competing interests, district officials are working on a plan that hopes to both teach kids effectively and keep the community as safe as possible. Based on a state framework of the same name, district officials call it Ketchikan’s “Smart Start” plan.

Under the plan, the number of students physically in classrooms at a time would depend on how quickly COVID-19 is spreading in Ketchikan, if at all. That’s based on guidance from the state education department and federal health officials.

As of the latest update on June 4, this is the basic plan:

If Ketchikan is relatively virus-free, with no cases of COVID-19 reported in the last 14 days, schools would be limited to half its normal occupancy. Students would be split into groups, with each group physically in classrooms two days a week. All students would do coursework from home one day per week.

But if the coronavirus is spreading quickly in Ketchikan, students would stay home and do their course work from a distance.

Another scenario outlined in the plan would have every kid in school all week as usual, but it’s not clear when it would be used.

Unlike the last months of this most recent school year, work would be assigned and graded, no matter whether students are in classrooms or at home. Students would submit at-home assignments through an online portal called Canvas and meet with teachers virtually for office hours and homeroom periods.

School will start later than usual — after Labor Day — with an extra week allotted for staff training. The board approved the delayed timeline last month.

The district’s plan saw pushback from some two dozen residents at the school board’s last meeting earlier this month. Parents told the board that videoconferences and online learning were no substitute for in-person teaching, especially for elementary-schoolers and those with special needs.

And that feedback has resulted in some changes — district officials said in a letter to parents last week that it would move the district-wide distance learning day from Wednesday to Friday in response to parental concern. The district also says it’s working on what it calls “extended learning opportunities” for days students are at home. It’s not clear what those might look like.

The Ketchikan School Board’s work session dedicated to its back-to-school plans gets underway at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in the White Cliff building. The public is invited to observe, though there isn’t public comment scheduled for the Tuesday meeting.

The board will hear testimony the following night at Wednesday’s regular meeting.