A draft back-to-school plan presented at a Ketchikan town hall Thursday evening says students will return to in-person learning this fall under all but extraordinary circumstances.
While the first public draft of the plan called for all-remote learning during severe COVID-19 outbreaks, the iteration of the “Start Strong” plan presented Thursday includes no distance options. Students would be in schools five days a week with very few exceptions.
Students across the district would only be sent home if city and borough leadership advised community members to hunker down or shelter in place, says Linnaea Troina, the school district’s COVID-19 communications director.
“The only time we would be out of school, not in 100% is if the community basically said we have to go on lockdown, and something’s wrong … if the borough mayor and the city mayor said, ‘OK, we can’t be having anything,'” she said. “Otherwise, we’re in school.”
Ketchikan’s mayors issued a stay-at-home advisory in the days after COVID-19 was first detected in the community in March 2020. That hasn’t happened since.
Troina left open the possibility that individual schools may shut down for a day at a time to allow for contact tracing following a positive case. But otherwise, it’s butts in seats five days a week, under the current draft.
The plan outlines four tiers of protective measures.
At high risk, masks would be required for all students and staff, visitors would be barred, and students would have to answer screening questions before entering classrooms.
Masks would be mandatory for all at medium risk, as well. At moderate risk, one tier down, elementary school students would be free to remove their masks within classrooms. At low risk, masks would be optional for all.
Ketchikan High School cheerleading coach Jaylyn Merrill said she preferred a looser masking policy.
“My vote in general would be to just leave masking completely to parents,” she said to applause.
Others suggested raising the threshold for the various risk levels, which would mean laxer requirements. If the district were to follow the state health department’s risk levels, as was proposed Thursday, 14 new cases in a week would trigger the most restrictive measures.
On Friday, district officials updated the plan to depend on the number of active cases in the community in response to feedback.
- Low risk would mean five or fewer active cases in Ketchikan
- Moderate risk would mean between six and 25 active cases
- Medium risk would correspond to between 26 and 49 cases
- High risk would be anything over 50 active cases.
As of Friday, 100 cases are active in the Ketchikan area, according to the community’s dashboard.
Some asked for stricter mask rules. Valerie Brooks, a reading specialist at Houghtaling Elementary School, submitted a letter, which was read aloud by the school board’s Nicole Anderson.
“I can tell you that as of August 4, 2021, the CDC recommends … “universal masking for all students, staff, teachers and visitors to K through 12 schools, regardless of vaccination status,” Anderson read.
Brooks also noted that recent CDC recommendations mean schoolchildren exposed to a positive case of COVID-19 in classrooms don’t need to quarantine if all parties wear masks, meaning students would spend more time on campuses.
Tongass School of Arts and Sciences teacher Allyson Sebcioglu said she saw firsthand how effective masks were at preventing an outbreak during the past school year. She said a paraprofessional, or teacher’s aide, tested positive, but with everyone wearing masks, the virus did not spread.
“None of my kids, nor other paras, or other staff in our building contracted COVID. Then in February, a teacher did, and her class had to go and quarantine, and her kids also did not come back COVID (positive), nor did any of the other staff,” she said.
She asked that the district strongly recommend masks at all risk levels.
Troina, the school district’s COVID-19 spokesperson, said the district’s Start Strong Committee would consider the community’s feedback as it prepares its final draft for a school board vote on Wednesday.
A partial recording of Thursday’s town hall is available below.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misspelled the first name of the district’s COVID-19 communications director, Linnaea Troina.