Sitka High ESL teacher Betty Richter’s technical writing class demonstrates social distancing technique. Although schools are an easy place to spread disease, the district says tough mitigation measures have resulted in no detectable spread of COVID-19 in schools. “The 10 or 11 times we’ve had a positive case at a building where people were in person,” said special education director Chris Voron, “we followed a mitigation plan and there’s been no documented transmission that public health can detect in our contact tracing.”  (SHS photo)

Sitka’s schools are on holiday break, and whether they reopen — for in-person learning — on January 4 remains a question mark.

During a recent listening session with the public, the district administration heard strong arguments both for and against returning kids to class. The answer, however, may ultimately lie in how well schools prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Schools in Sitka transitioned to remote learning on November 11, when the number of infections in the community exceeded the threshold established in the district’s Smart Start plan back in the summer.

That bar was 12 cases of coronavirus reported in the community in a couple of weeks. Sitka blew through that in early November, the beginning of a surge that did not show any signs of tapering for a full month. But even now the 12 cases-in-two-weeks metric is looking unrealistic, at least until the arrival of widespread vaccination among the public.

The goal of the listening session on December 16 was to try and home in on a new metric — actually, a combination of metrics — that would allow people to feel that students could safely attend school in person, at a minimum risk to themselves, faculty, families, and the community.

There was a broad spectrum of opinion on the issue — all of it well-reasoned and civil. Parent Jeremy Twaddle brought out data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that the fatality rate among children under 19 was far lower than older populations. He did not feel that the district’s response was proportionate to the risk.

“These poor children are being forced to wear masks in school, forced to stay separated from their friends, forced to quarantine if they leave the state, forced to test and quarantine if they have the sniffles, forced into accepting a reduced education — especially with remote learning — these are our children, not lab rats to perform tests on,” said Twaddle.

Superintendent John Holst said that a district survey found that 80-percent of the district’s families want their kids to return to school. Testimony at the listening session suggested that — although it’s a huge economic challenge for some families — most of the harm was falling on students themselves.

This Teal West, parent of a middle-schooler.

“I’ve watched a vibrant 12 year-old that was in Silks, softball, basketball, Girls on the Run — you name it, she did it — she’s now in nothing,” West said. “I’ve watched her go from not being on a screen much, not having much access to iPhones, to being on an iPad eight hours a day.”

But there were parents who supported online school, and whose children were doing well. Parent Colana Marley said her daughter was benefiting from the “academic rigor” of the online program.

“I really feel like Sitka’s teachers have been doing a really fabulous job,” she said. “Very innovative, and just hard-working.”

Parent Chola Moll teaches science at Mt. Edgecumbe, but has a second- and fourth-grader in the Sitka School District. She said that she’s had them at home since the beginning of the pandemic, and that they are making academic progress. Moll argued that making a decision simply on the current understanding of COVID’s risk might be premature.

“I also would just like to say that death is not the only risk of COVID,” she said. “This is a really complicated disease, and that the long-term effects are only now being discovered and it will take a long time for us to understand what those long-term effects are. Children will be living with these unknown long-term effects the longest.”

Moll pointed out that although her children were learning remotely, she was teaching in-person in her classroom at Mt. Edgecumbe, and it was not without its own set of anxieties. “Just putting them in school does not take away stress,” she said. Parent Patti McPike said that she had sensed this in her Blatchley student, before schools transitioned to fully remote learning in November. She wondered if the district was going to ask students how they felt about returning.

“I know that for my child going and being in a mask that long, and knowing that she ran the risk of picking something up to expose to her other loved family members and extended family members, was stressing her out beyond belief,” said McPike. “And I don’t think she’s the only kid that’s stressed about maybe getting grandma sick, or an auntie, or a high-risk sibling.”

There were 77 people online for the listening session, and a handful in person at Harrigan Centennial Hall, and it was one of those rare public meetings where everyone was right: Sitka’s kids are being harmed by missing school; many are doing well online, however, and teachers are doing amazing work; the risks of COVID are not fully understood; the stress and anxiety over the pandemic is running high both in, and out of the classroom. It’s nonstop in the media — and so on.

Then a parent named Mike Carroll suggested this:

“Why aren’t data points for transmission — or the lack of transmission — within the schools being used as a primary indicator to determine whether or not schools remain open or closed?” he asked.

It was the aha moment: Superintendent John Holst said that the district hadn’t developed a metric for COVID transmission in schools — because there had been none. Special Education director Chris Voron elaborated.

“The 10 or 11 times we’ve had a positive case at a building where people were in person,” said Voron, “we followed a mitigation plan and there’s been no documented transmission that public health can detect in our contact tracing.” 

Superintendent John Holst concluded the listening session by saying “I’ve tried to give this decision away to anyone who would take it.” He did say that families will continue to have the option of online instruction, regardless of what happens.

Although Holst will consider the recommendations of the Sitka Unified Command, Public Health, and the SEARHC Chief Medical Officer, he told KCAW in a follow-up call that determining a rate of transmission within schools “may well be the most important information” in deciding whether to reopen schools to in-person learning on January 4.