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

Most of Ketchikan’s middle- and high-schoolers will be spending less time in the classroom as the spread of COVID-19 continues. The school district announced Wednesday it’s switching over to a hybrid of online and in-person instruction through at least the end of November.

COVID-19 is spreading rapidly in Ketchikan, and officials hope that moving some classes online will help slow the spread. Ketchikan’s school board voted unanimously at an emergency meeting Wednesday to activate a new phase of its COVID-19 mitigation plan.

Earlier in the day, officials raised the local pandemic alert level to “high” after announcing that four people had been hospitalized. Pandemic response officials say they’re alarmed that more than 3% of coronavirus tests in Ketchikan are now coming back positive.

Schoenbar Middle School, Revilla Junior-Senior High School and Ketchikan High School — also known as Kayhi — will dial back to half capacity. That means most students at those schools will attend school in person two days a week and complete online lessons for the rest of the time. But there will be some exceptions for students with special needs.

Superintendent Beth Lougee said that after a two-day, all-online transition period, the three affected schools will move to the hybrid system on Monday. Faculty will teach from inside the school buildings.

“They will be providing the online learning just like we did during the 24-hour closure when we had a COVID case,” Lougee told the school board Wednesday.

The earliest students at Schoenbar, Revilla and Kayhi could return to the classroom full-time is Nov. 30. But that’ll only happen if the community’s risk level has fallen to “moderate” or “low.”

In the meantime, the rest of the district’s schools, including each of Ketchikan’s elementary and charter schools, will continue to hold classes in-person five days a week. That’s because with extra classroom space leased by the district, officials say there’s room to spread children out and reduce the risk of spreading the disease.

Houghtaling Elementary closed Thursday after school officials announced that a student had tested positive. It’ll reopen Friday, according to the school’s principal.

The move to a hybrid model comes as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise in Ketchikan. At least 43 people are currently infected as of Thursday morning — with 37 testing positive in the past week. Those are both record highs for Ketchikan.

Ketchikan’s pandemic response chief, Abner Hoage, told the board by phone that it’s an effort to avoid more restrictive measures for the wider community.

“We’re really to a point where this is our last chance to slow this thing down before we get to a point where we need to go into lockdown. So every step that the school takes to try to help us minimize that spread in the community will go a long way,” he said.

“Fewer than a handful” of students have tested positive for COVID-19, Lougee said — the district has only reported four positive cases among students and staff, and at least one was a staff member. But Lougee says that especially in the past three days, state public health officials are telling more and more teachers to quarantine after potential exposure.

“Which then requires us to get subs, which is starting to put a strain, because we don’t have a big sub pool. So that is a concern of ours,” she said.

If Ketchikan’s community risk level rises to “very high,” all classes would go online.

Details of the plans for each individual school are posted at the district’s website.

This story has been updated with new information: Houghtaling Elementary School will reopen Friday.