A sign in front of the fire hall displays Sitka’s current alert level. Officials say in order for the level to revert back to “low” Sitka must see no new cases of COVID-19 between now and October 9. (KCAW/Rose)

City officials are hoping to keep schools open in Sitka, as the number of coronavirus cases in the community edges closer to the threshold for closing them. 

At the latest meeting of the Sitka Unified Command (9-30-20), much of the discussion was around the importance of keeping kids in school — and their parents at work — after a cluster of new cases raised the alert level in town from “low” to “moderate” risk.

The Sitka Unified Command raised the alert level in Sitka on September 27, just before there were nine active cases in town — the highest number of active cases since June. When the unified command met several days later, city administrator John Leach said the city’s new alert system is working well and commended Sitkans on their response.

“I’m happy that I didn’t see a lot of panic from anybody. We’ve had a plan and really, it’s just been ‘execute the plan,'” he said. “We’ve put out the precautionary messages to the public, more or less said ‘Be vigilant, follow what’s up there in the guidance.’ Because the important thing is keeping schools open right now, and if the schools are open, people can continue to work, so continue to watch out for each other.”

Among the new wave of cases was a Blatchley Middle School staff member who tested positive on September 25. A student at Mt. Edgecumbe High School also tested positive, prompting the school to enact a brief lockdown and quarantine around 25 students.

Increasing cases in the community trigger responses at both the Sitka School District and Mt. Edgecumbe. According to the Sitka School District’s plan, 12 or more cases in the community over a period of 14 days should prompt a pivot to fully-remote learning. But Superintendent John Holst said that if cases keep creeping up, they’ll consider other factors too, and will avert closing schools as long as they can. 

“We are not going to just shut down if we hit those numbers. We are going to need to think seriously about ‘what are the dangers?’ Are any of the cases in our schools, among our staff? Is it community spread?” Holst said. “There are going to be circumstances in which we won’t count some of the people who are listed in the 12, 13, 14, and 15.”

And Holst expressed frustration about how seriously the virus was being taken within the community, and said how well people follow the city’s social distancing guidelines will have a direct impact on whether Sitka’s schools can remain open 

“I think there are enough people not safely socially distancing in the community right now. I think people have become cavalier about it…I talked to several people who have been invited to parties and they show up with a mask on, and walk in and no one is wearing a mask, and they say hello and goodbye and leave again,” Holst said. “I guess I hope that people in the community are taking this seriously, because what they do is going to affect the schools. There’s no question about it.”

SEARHC Chief Medical officer Dr. Elliot Bruhl said that SEARHC’s will be ramping up flu vaccination efforts soon. The consortium’s goal is to vaccinate around sixty percent of Sitka’s population this cold and flu season.  

In addition to the new cases it reported over the week, Sitka also reported another resident had been hospitalized with COVID-19, bringing the city’s total hospitalizations to two over the past six months.