Sitka’s schools are shutting their doors — but not their instructional programs, which will continue remotely. Even at Baranof Elementary, which was hoping to remain open nevertheless. “The numbers are just so big,” says superintendent John Holst, “the optics of staying open when the community appears to be in crisis were just too much.” (KCAW image)

Sitka’s schools are closing down for a week, after a surge in coronavirus cases in the community.

Roughly one-third of Sitka’s total case count in the pandemic has come since the end of October.

The Sitka school closure runs from November 11 – 17. All students will take classes remotely during that time.

District superintendent John Holst says the closure is a precautionary measure, because the infection doesn’t appear to be spreading within school buildings.

“The numbers are just so big,” Holst said. “The optics of staying open when the community appears to be in a crisis was just too much.”

For months — even during the summer fishing season — Sitka experienced very few active cases. As of October 20, in fact, Sitka was at a “low alert” level, then bumped up to “moderate” on October 30, and then to “high” on November 3 — basically, a continuous roll from late October that produced 32 positive cases in about two weeks.

(Note: City data from October 28 – November 9. The school district uses “Date Tested” as its effective date for determining if a case falls within the 14-day window used to establish the district’s alert level.)

The dramatic surge has also forestalled plans to have the Baranof Elementary School remain open come what may. Principal Jill LeCrone told the school board last week that her building was preparing to remain open, even if other district buildings closed, due to the extraordinary challenges of remote learning in kindergarten and first grade. Nevertheless, Baranof is closing, with an eye to reopening a day ahead of the rest of the district.

“Of course if things get even worse, that probably won’t occur,” he said. “But Jill (LeCrone) and her staff are pretty much committed to opening on Monday if at all possible.”

Thanks to strict mitigation measures, Holst doesn’t believe that COVID-19 is being transmitted in the schools. He noted that each of the confirmed positive cases reported in the district so far were in the buildings for several days before their test results came back, and they did not appear to infect anyone else.

Holst says this will make a difference when deciding to go back to school. 

“As long as the buildings are safe, and staff and students are safe, staying open is a priority,” said Holst. “I mean that’s what everyone wants.”

On several occasions, Holst has stressed to the board that closing schools has a harmful ripple effect throughout the community. He’s also said that decision-making in a district is often a 60/40 proposition, with only 60 percent of affected people supporting a decision, and 40 percent opposed.

The data from this latest decision to close Sitka’s schools supports his theory. 

“I’ve been getting a lot of emails responding to the messages that I’ve been sending out almost daily now, and I can tell you that there is a big split in the community,” Holst said. “It appears to me that well over a majority — 60-70 percent, or maybe even higher — of the parents want to see school open, and were disappointed that we closed.”

Although the closure is scheduled for just a week in most buildings, Holst says the district will want to see a downward trend in the infection rate, even if the numbers don’t drop to the level (no more than 12 cases in 14 days) specified in last summer’s Smart Start plan, before resuming in-person instruction.