No one said wearing a mask had to be boring. Teacher Paul Fitzgibbon and academic principal Bernie Gurule incorporate mask-wearing into their Halloween costumes. “During a pandemic, you just have to keep moving forward,” superintendent Janelle Vanasse told the state Board of Education. (MEHS photo)

Mt. Edgecumbe High School successfully contained an early outbreak of coronavirus, and is holding classes in person, despite the fact that Sitka — and most of the state — remains at “high.”

The Alaska Board of Education heard a favorable report about the state-owned boarding school’s efforts to mitigate the virus, during its quarterly meeting on December 9.

Note: Since the broadcast of this story, Mt. Edgecumbe has reported another positive case, which was detected through routine testing please see our updated story here.

The Board of Education is the “school board” for Mt. Edgecumbe High School, and the state’s other residential secondary education programs.

Mt. Edgecumbe superintendent Janelle Vanasse reported that her staff’s careful planning, testing requirements, and strict quarantine procedures had limited the spread of the virus — even though two students arrived on campus this fall covid-positive. The school has had only six positive cases — all asymptomatic — in its student body of 366, and one case in the kitchen with a contract staff member, who had no contact with students.

See the MEHS Smart Start “Restart” Presentation delivered to the state Board of Education.

Vanasse outlined the pros and cons of Mt. Edgecumbe’s program during the pandemic. First the pros:

Vanasse – What’s gone really well: The mask wearing has gone very well. We’re really proud of our kids, they’ve been really consistent with that. The Visitor Center, and the restrictions around visiting and checking-out has also gone really well. COVID testing has been amazing. I think we’ve really improved how we’ve quarantined kids, so I feel like we’ve got a good plan there now. The communication has gone well with parents, they’ve been really pleased. We have lunch delivered at two different sites, and that’s to reduce our cafeteria. That’s gone pretty well. It’s quite a feat, and difficult, but it’s turned out better than I thought it might. The fact that our kids are continuing to learn is really going well. For the most part our kids are in class, and that’s really a helpful way to make sure that kids are interacting with the learning.

The cons, however, are pretty much what you’d expect from trying to wrangle 366 teens.

Vanasse – What are some challenges? We’re really struggling to keep kids social distancing. The gym, and recreational activities, are the most difficult to make sure that you don’t create close contact. Finding a holding place while we’re waiting for test results: You don’t want to put a kid in isolation or quarantine while you’re still waiting for test results. That’s been a challenge for us. And the one-to-one tutoring that we’ve always done has been challenging.

Vanasse told the board that they now keep a couple of rooms open in the dorms to move students who need to quarantine, and usually students will quarantine together. Vanasse said that although this would extend the quarantine time if one of the students tested positive, it was better for the mental health of the students to be together.

The greatest risk, she said, was from the school’s faculty and students who live in Sitka. Vanasse said that there was weekly surveillance testing of this population.

Overall, the Board of Education expressed appreciation with the efforts of Mt. Edgecumbe. Member Sally Stockhausen was impressed. She said what many were probably thinking:

“If anyone should have had spread, you guys should have had spread,” she said.

Board member Keith Hamilton is president of Alaska Christian College. He was doubly-appreciative for the Mt. Edgecumbe model.

“And I’ll just thank you again,” he said. “As you know we stole a lot of what you did, here at Alaska Christian College. It’s a great plan, it’s really been benefical.”

Vanasse went on to say that holiday travel was already starting at Mt. Edgecumbe, due to some of the long layovers students needed to return home. The decision to bring students home this time of year is always the family’s; Vanasse said that at least a dozen — and maybe more — were electing to leave their students safely on campus this year, rather than risk exposure to the virus on the trip.

Vanasse told the board that the Mt. Edgecumbe staff was prepared to make sure that those students were well-cared for with activities and food. “We’re going to get them a lot of snacks,” she said, “the kind they actually like, and not the kind we think they should have.”