Ketchikan’s school board is set to finalize its plan to bring students back to school safely on Wednesday.
The final draft of what administrators are calling the “Start Strong” plan would have students in classrooms regardless of COVID-19 activity in the community — there are no plans to shift between in-person and remote schooling. Protective measures, like masking and screening, would ratchet up as cases rise.
“The goal of the plan is to have kids in school 100% of the time, unless they’re out on quarantine … unless they tested positive. That’s the goal,” she said.
That’s former Ketchikan High School Assistant Principal Linnaea Troina, who was recently hired as the school district’s COVID-19 communications director.
Administrators say they’d only send students home if local mayors issued a “hunker down” advisory, or if a school needed to close for a day at a time to allow for contact tracing. Contrast that with last year, when secondary students spent months in classrooms at 50% capacity during COVID-19 outbreaks.
Local teachers union president Gara Williams of the Ketchikan Education Association says she favors in-person schooling.
“Really, the best model is being face-to-face with your students at school,” she said in a phone interview Tuesday.
But she says the district’s plans are too lax on face masks. The draft plan up for consideration by Ketchikan’s school board on Wednesday requires masks for most students and all staff when six or more COVID-19 infections are active in the community. But elementary students aren’t required to mask up in classrooms until more than 25 active cases are reported.
And Williams says by that time, it may be too late to prevent further spread.
“The analogy that I’ve heard people using is if masks are optional in the moderate risk level, it’s kind of like the horse is already out of the gates,” she said. “You can start requiring masks, but COVID is already spreading through the community.”
She said district officials should revert to a prior version of the plan, which would peg the school district’s COVID-19 measures to state pandemic alert levels. That would dramatically lessen the threshold to trigger universal masking across all grade levels — eight new cases in a week, rather than 26 active cases as the current plan calls for.
Troina, the school district’s COVID-19 spokesperson, says she agrees that masking is an important tool to keep students in classrooms. That’s because recent federal health guidance says that students who come in contact with a COVID-19 positive student don’t have to quarantine — but only if everyone was wearing a mask.
As of Tuesday afternoon, 119 cases of COVID-19 are active in Ketchikan. That’s more than twice the threshold for the district’s most restrictive measures. Those include universal masking and health screenings, along with barring visitors and spectators from classes and events.
Ketchikan’s school board meets at 6 p.m. Wednesday in the White Cliff Building. The meeting is broadcast on local cable channels and live-streamed at the borough’s website. Public comment will be heard at the beginning of the meeting.