Parents again took aim at the Ketchikan School District’s back-to-school plans Wednesday. Many speakers at the meeting argued that schools shouldn’t be kept just half-full this fall.
Ketchikan school officials propose students spend no more than two days a week in the classroom. But they emphasized that the district’s “Smart Start” plan remains a work in progress. At least eight residents took the opportunity to express their displeasure at Wednesday’s school board meeting.
Some questioned whether state and federal school reopening guidance was mandatory. Nathaniel Curall read from a state education department document that outlines guidance for reopening schools, saying it’s voluntary.
“Please note: Alaska’s ‘Smart Start 2020’ framework provides considerations, recommendations, and best practices to ensure a safe and successful 2020-2021 school year. This guidance is not mandated or state-required,” he read.
School Board President Bridget Mattson pushed back, saying the district needs to spell out its pandemic plans.
“That is a requirement that it is placed on our district to have these plans in place in the event that our community feels that we are in a situation where the plans need to be enacted,” she said.
But reached for comment Thursday, state education department spokesperson Rochelle Lindley says requirement may be an overstatement.
“These plans are not mandated or state-required, however we do recommend — highly recommend — that districts have a plan in place to make sure that they can mitigate the risks of COVID and we do recommend that districts submit their plans by July 31,” Lindley said.
But the key word is “recommend.” Lindley says districts aren’t required to submit plans to the state. So if Ketchikan’s school board wanted to open schools at full capacity, with no plans in place for pandemic mitigation, Lindley says they could.
“Local school districts do have the authority and the flexibility to make decisions responsive to their communities,” she said.
Other parents, like Nicole Anderson, pointed out that even federal health guidance isn’t mandatory.
“One of the solutions is in reference to modified layouts: ‘Space seating/desks at least six feet apart when feasible,’” she said.
District officials have said that one reason behind the planned move to 50% capacity is to maintain six feet between students.
“What the CDC says is, ‘when feasible.’ It’s obviously not feasible for our schools because we don’t have the space,” Anderson said.
Tiffany Cook was one of several residents who offered another suggestion:
“Give parents the option to sign a waiver,” she said. “Ultimately, we as parents are responsible for the level of risk that our children take on.”
Cook said she’d be willing to sign away her right to sue the district if it meant her kids could go to a full-capacity school five days a week. She says she’s worried that isolation from friends and classmates takes a toll on her kids’ mental health.
She said she recognizes that some kids and their families are at higher risk. The district could provide options for those kids, she said — homeschooling, perhaps, or reduced-capacity classrooms like those set out in the district’s draft plan.
Two board members — Diane Gubatayao and Sonya Skan — said they’d like to check with the district’s lawyers.
But Board Member Jordan Tabb said the idea was, in his words, a “non-starter.”
“As I see it, we can either provide school that’s safe or we can’t,” he said.
He said having some schools at full capacity and some at reduced capacity would create a two-tiered school system.
“We have a commitment to provide fair and equal access and opportunity to an education for all students of the district,” Tabb said. “And to say some students will be able to come to the school full-time if their parents are willing to accept that risk, and other students will not have access to that, does not provide for a fair equal opportunity.”
Superintendent Beth Lougee also pushed back against the idea of opening schools at full capacity — for another reason.
“This isn’t a situation where we can just open up school and our staff is expected to go.” Lougee said. “We’re also trying to design so our staff feel safe, they feel ready, they’re comfortable coming in.”
And if teachers don’t feel safe, that could defeat the purpose of having kids in classrooms.
“The last thing we want to do is have a staff that can’t come in,” Lougee said, “they are distance learning, and the students are in the school building but in front of a substitute teacher.”
Lougee asked parents for patience and said she’d committed to sending out weekly updates on the district’s future plans to parents every Friday.