Ketchikan’s school district is changing how it determines its COVID-19 restrictions. Starting next month, officials will look to the number of students and staff who spend time in schools while infectious when setting the school district’s pandemic risk level each week.
Previously, the district’s COVID-19 risk level was determined by the number of active COVID-19 cases in the community as a whole. But that metric will no longer be publicly available starting Feb. 1, when Ketchikan’s pandemic reporting shifts from the local level to state level. Superintendent Melissa Johnson says the new system follows the same principles as the old one.
“We are using the same vetted process that the district school board has already approved. The only thing that we are doing is using the population of our schools versus a population of the community of Ketchikan,” Johnson said in a phone interview this week.
The district’s four-tier plan ratchets pandemic measures like masks, visitor restrictions and health screenings up and down with the number of COVID-19 cases in Ketchikan. That means when cases are low, masks are optional, and when they’re high — as they have been for nearly all of this school year — masks are mandatory.
Ketchikan’s school board has in recent months discussed setting mask rules and visitor restrictions school-by-school. But Johnson says that’s not happening yet.
“And one of the main reasons for us in administration is that we have a lot of crossover cases — we have kids that, you know, one goes to the middle school, one goes to the high school and one goes to an elementary school. When a family is affected, it’s affecting our whole district,” she said.
A recent district survey of parents, staff and students shows stark divides on pandemic mitigation. About 65% of students and parents responding to the survey said they’d be at least somewhat comfortable with eliminating mask requirements altogether. But about 70% of teachers and staff said a masks-optional policy regardless of COVID risk level would make them uneasy.
Johnson says with COVID-19 cases at all-time highs in Ketchikan, the district does not plan to change its pandemic mitigation measures in the near future. She’s asking the community to hang in there as the omicron surge continues.
“I just appreciate the patience of parents, students and staff members,” she said. “I understand the frustration, and I’m in there with them. I’m a parent. I’m a staff member. I have a student in my house. It’s frustrating, but I’m hopeful that we can get to a different risk level soon.”
Under the new system, masks are required if 13 or more cases are detected in district schools in a week. As of Sunday, district officials said 47 people had been in school while infectious in the past week.