Medical experts are slated to weigh in on changes to Ketchikan’s school district’s anti-COVID-19 policies at a special school board meeting scheduled for Wednesday. That’s after school board members discussed a variety of proposals to roll back protective measures meant to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Ketchikan’s school board wants advice from doctors and nurses before adjusting the district’s COVID-19 mitigation measures.
Board members floated a few different proposals at their Nov. 10 meeting, which ranged from minor tweaks to a wholesale rollback of pandemic procedures.
Board Member Paul Robbins Jr. said he was worried about children taking their own lives. He cited federal public health statistics showing an increase in childhood suicide attempts since the pandemic took hold: As of this past spring, emergency room visits for attempted suicide are up more than 50% among middle-school and high-school-age girls compared to the same period in 2019.
He proposed setting a date at which COVID-19 restrictions would sunset.
“When we’re talking about sunsetting some of these mitigation measures, especially the ones around kids being able to get together, we are talking about saving lives,” he said. “And potentially a considerably larger amount of lives than we are with just masking or by restricting what they can do as far as sports, and being able to interact with each other.”
Board Member Jordan Tabb cautioned against drawing strong conclusions about a connection between precautions against the pandemic and young people taking their own lives.
“I also want to address what I feel is that convenient attribution of, ‘Hey, we’re seeing increased mental health symptoms as well as, you know, these mitigation measures. Surely the two must be related,'” he said. “Maybe, but maybe not.”
Tabb, a state-licensed social worker, said that while it’s clear that the pandemic weighs on mental health, it’s not clear that things like masks, health screenings and strict limits on school visitors and spectators are driving children to suicide.
“As someone who does work specifically in the field of addressing childhood trauma, and childhood suicide, I can absolutely say yes, COVID is a factor. COVID causes stress, COVID causes depression. COVID causes isolation,” Tabb said. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean that mitigation measures also cause these things.”
The study, available online from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cautions that while emergency room visits are up, preliminary mortality data show that deaths by suicide among that age group actually decreased between 2019 and last year.
“Importantly, although this report found increases in ED [emergency department] visits for suspected suicide attempts among adolescent females during 2020 and early 2021, this does not mean that suicide deaths have increased. Provisional mortality data found an overall decrease in the age-adjusted suicide rate from quarter 3 (July–September) of 2019 to quarter 3 of 2020,” reads the June 2021 study.
The study’s authors also write that the analysis was not designed to establish a causal link between the pandemic and suicide, which Robbins acknowledged.
Superintendent Melissa Johnson pointed out that students are not isolated as they were during the spring of 2020 and portions of the following school year. The district’s current COVID-19 plan does not cancel in-person classes, sports or activities, regardless of the community’s COVID-19 risk level.
“The only difference was how many spectators could come,” she said.
Board Member Bridget Mattson said without masks, unchecked spread of COVID-19 could leave schools short staffed and force a rapid transition to virtual learning.
“That’s something that we haven’t had to deal with this year, we haven’t had an outbreak among staff — we’ve been able to keep staff in school, which allows our children to go to school and for me that is my goal: to keep children in school,” she said.
Tabb posited that the school district’s four-tier COVID-19 plan already had a built-in sunset clause: When Ketchikan has five or fewer COVID-19 cases, mask requirements and other protective measures are lifted.
Board members also discussed loosening mask rules in gym classes. Board member Diane Gubatayao said her grandson had complained that masks made it difficult to breathe while running.
“There are other mitigation things you can do it in a gym, you can open the doors — ventilation is a big item for the CDC, ventilation — you can space kids out when they’re running,” she said.
Board member Keenan Sanderson pointed out that athletes in organized sports aren’t required to wear masks.
“Why is it that we have one set of policies for physical activity for students K through 12, and then we have a different policy for activities after school?” he asked the superintendent.
Johnson said it came down to testing — student athletes are tested twice a week in line with regional athletics rules. She said she’d looked into lifting mask requirements for ordinary gym classes, where students are not tested regularly.
“We put something out to every single P.E. teacher saying, ‘Could you do a mitigation plan in your class where you could feel confident on following the mitigation plan — which is a certain population of people far enough away — could you develop a plan to where you don’t have to have masks?’ And they, every single one of them … said, ‘I cannot do that,'” she said.
Board member Bridget Mattson suggested keeping the district’s mask mandate but loosening quarantine requirements. She pointed to the Anchorage School District, which doesn’t send students home to quarantine unless they show COVID-19 symptoms.
“Because they believe full stop, the safest place for any student is in school, full stop,” she said. “So unless they’re symptomatic or COVID, where they would have to go home, they don’t close contact quarantine in order to keep children in school.”
She suggested the board consider that before ditching mask requirements.
What specific changes will be up for consideration at Wednesday’s special meeting are unclear — the board threw out a variety of potential topics near the end of the meeting. But the board took an informal vote to call a special meeting to hear input from health professionals before considering revisions.
An agenda for next Wednesday’s 6 p.m. meeting at the White Cliff Building says only that the board will consider “action regarding changes to the COVID Start Strong mitigation plan and school operations as impacted by COVID.” Public testimony will be limited to five minutes per person.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, help is available 24 hours a day at the Ketchikan Cares Crisis Line at 907-225-CARE (907-225-2273).