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With low COVID numbers, some Southeast school districts are preparing to fully reopen

Some school districts across Southeast Alaska are planning to fully reopen in the fall. (08/11/20)
Some school districts across Southeast Alaska are planning to fully reopen in the fall. (08/11/20)(KTUU)
Published: Aug. 11, 2020 at 6:35 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Some school districts across Southeast Alaska are planning to fully reopen to in-person classes five days per week, but that could change if COVID-19 case numbers rise. Other districts across Southeast are still planning to open more cautiously.

The plans to fully reopen contrast with Juneau School District, the largest district in the region, that announced last week that it was reopening on Aug. 24 with online-only classes. Juneau’s plans could change after Labor Day if COVID numbers are low, allowing for small cohorts of students to come back to school.

Ketchikan Gateway Borough School District announced on Aug. 5 that it would reopen fully to onsite learning following its “minimum risk schedule.” Students and staff will be required to wear face masks at school.

As of Monday, Ketchikan reported having a cumulative total of 51 COVID cases among residents and nonresidents since the pandemic began. By contrast, Juneau has recorded 184 cumulative COVID cases.

At Ketchikan schools, there will be COVID mitigation strategies implemented for classrooms, including spacing between desks and deep cleaning of schools.

Beth Lougee, the Ketchikan superintendent, said the school district is looking to rent some buildings surrounding schools so students and staff can spread out and social distance. The school board is set to vote on the plan on Aug. 12 which is estimated to cost between $2,000 and $6,000 per month.

The cost would be covered by the district’s and the borough’s federal coronavirus funding.

Ketchikan is also offering distance learning led by a teacher and homeschooling where parents take the role of teachers. Lougee said applications for homeschooling have surged compared to previous years. “It’s probably doubled from what we normally have,” she said.

That’s a trend seen across Alaska. Mollie Harings, the principal of PACE Statewide Homeschool, said applications for homeschooling have recently jumped.

As of last October, there were 330 students enrolled in PACE across Alaska. Currently, 520 students have enrolled for the upcoming school year.

“On average, we are receiving approximately 12 new enrollments and half a dozen requests for more information per day,” Harings wrote by email. “We have had a significant increase in interest this year due to the various situations schools and districts are in.”

The most interest for homeschooling has been seen in Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Ketchikan, Wrangell, and Prince of Wales Island, Harings said.

Ketchikan’s reopening plans follow the state’s Alaska Smart Start 2020 framework. The guidance from the Department of Education and Early Development offers help for districts as they plan how to reopen schools safely.

Sitka, with a population just under 9,000 people, is similarly-sized to Ketchikan but the city has seen almost half the number of COVID cases since the pandemic hit.

Sitka School District is also planning to reopen fully to in-person classes five days per week if case numbers stay in the “low-risk” category. Students and staff will also be mandated to wear face masks at school.

Sitka High School will be open to students every other day with teachers leading classes online.

If between seven and 11 community cases are detected over a 14 day period, Sitka schools would be in a “medium risk” category and would see additional cleaning measures used. In-person classes would continue to be offered five days per week.

With 12 or more cases in a 14 day period, Sitka schools would close to in-person classes and the district would move to an online-only model. All the Southeast districts with published plans would move to a remote learning model if community cases rise substantially.

Smaller communities across Southeast have similar plans but not all have been finalized for the start of the school year.

Schools in Skagway will reopen fully to in-person classes in both its “green” and “yellow” risk categories. Superintendent John Coughran estimates between ten and 20 students have signed up for distance learning but he didn’t have solid numbers.

Chatham School District runs schools in Angoon, Klukwan and Gustavus. It has a similar sliding scale of reopening plans as COVID case numbers fall or rise. Masks are encouraged for the lowest risk category and mandated if cases rise.

The local school board will need to approve the district’s reopening plans on Aug. 11 before its plans are implemented.

Wrangell will make a decision on Aug. 24 what the upcoming school year will look like.

Other school districts in Southeast Alaska are reopening more cautiously.

Kake City School District said with one positive COVID-19 case announced on Monday that it was initially moving to an online-only learning model.

Hydaburg City School District will have 50% of students come into class on an alternating schedule throughout the week. Bart Warey, Hydaburg’s superintendent, said the decision was based on COVID numbers on Prince of Wales Island. The island had recorded nine cases with six people recovered.

Annette Island School District is following a similar 50% capacity model as is Petersburg School District and Haines Borough School District.

Roy Getchell, the superintendent in Haines, said face coverings will also be mandated. Getchell estimates that around 70% of families want to go with an in-person option while 30% want homeschooling or teachers leading classes online.

Copyright 2020 KTUU. All rights reserved.

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