Elementary students in Sitka are prepared to go to online (on iPads), but most of their teachers don’t feel that the model is effective for kindergarten and first grade. (Flickr photo/Nenad Stojkovic

A cluster of covid cases in Sitka in late September brought the community’s schools to the brink of closure. Things have since improved, and the district has stepped back from the possibility of fully-remote education. But when another outbreak happens, Sitka’s elementary school might remain open, even if all other schools close.

The Sitka School District is prepared to offer remote education to all students. At the high school, in fact, it’s become part of the routine, as half the student body attends in person on alternate days.

But at Sitka’s Baranof Elementary School — as at other elementary schools around the country — online education is far more challenging. District superintendent John Holst told the Sitka School Board at its last meeting on October 7 that most of the staff there would like to continue classes in the building, even if Sitka experiences another outbreak like the recent one.

“Last Tuesday when I sent out a message to the staff at about noon that we had had five cases in three days — and that trend certainly didn’t look very good — I alerted them that we might be within a day or two of notice that we might have to be going virtual,” he said. “Well, the kindergarten teachers kind of got together that afternoon and went to see Jill (LeCrone), and said ‘We would like to have the kids come in even if the rest of the district shuts down.’”

Under its Smart Start Plan, the Sitka School District would shift to remote learning when Sitka has widespread community transmission, defined as 12 or more cases in two weeks, with frequent discreet outbreaks.

The issue, according to Holst, is not that virtual education for kindergarteners and first-graders is inconvenient or hard — the issue is that it doesn’t work very well, based on the mass experiment undertaken in Sitka and elsewhere when schools  closed last spring and moved classes online.

Holst said that teachers were concerned that very young students were not progressing in the virtual model, and may be “irreparably harmed.”

“That building is really nothing but a building of kindergarteners because we missed three months last spring of kindergarten,” he said. “And then you add to that the three months of summer — and we all know about the regression that takes place even during a normal summer — and so we had that six-month time (with no effective school).”

Holst told the board that he met with the teachers the day after they approached Baranof principal Jill LeCrone, and there was near-consensus on the matter (one teacher, Holst said, had “minor concerns”).

To keep kinders and first-graders in school if Sitka moved to a high-risk alert level wouldn’t be a decision the district could make without the approval of the state. Board member Paul Rioux said that the Department of Education and Early Development was not saying “no” — not yet, anyway.

“They’ve given us the green light to go ahead and discuss a plan,” said Rioux. “We’re not committing to anything — we’re just discussing it.”

Rioux sat on the Baranof Elementary Smart Start committee which was tasked over the summer with coming up with the education plan for young students. When the committee reported to the community in July, it leaned heavily on the idea of keeping students physically in class — more so than other buildings. This is committee member Kristin Hames back in July:

“Kindergarteners and first-graders benefit most when they have hands-on experiences,” said Hames. “And also when they have personal interactions with peers. So really from day one our goal was to figure out how to make that happen, and how to do it safely.”

Superintendent Holst said it would require additional mitigation measures if Baranof remained open under a high-risk alert in Sitka. On top of everything being done now, attendance would be voluntary, parents would be responsible for transportation to and from school, and staff would increase their covid testing to weekly.

Holst said that there was a broad spectrum of possibilities between having a cluster of 12-15 cases in Sitka, and a full lockdown like the one that city hall recommended last spring. He thought the plan to keep Baranof students in class could work, as long as the district was vigilant.

“We will pull the plug anytime we think it’s not going to be safe for students and staff,” he said. “That’s got to be the top priority.”