In this image from 2020, desks at Keet Gooshi Heen elementary school were six feet apart. Interim superintendent John Holst told the school board on Wednesday (4-7-21) that new CDC guidelines for schools next year have reduced distancing requirements to three feet — and masks and hygiene will still play a large role. (SSD image capture)

The Sitka School District is planning a return to full-time, in-person learning next year. If it goes as hoped, it will be the first time Sitka students have had a normal school day since spring break of 2020.

Interim superintendent John Holst told the Sitka School board (on Wednesday 4-7-21) that the administration was already preparing for the fall.

“We’re planning on having school next year just as we always have had,” said Holst. “Full days, every day of the week. A regular calendar.”

If that happens, it will be the first time normal classes have been held in Sitka since March of 2020, when schools were dismissed for spring break, and never reopened by order of the governor.

But “normal” is relative. Holst added that mitigation measures would remain in place, most importantly masks. However social distancing would be reduced to three feet rather than six feet, based on updated CDC guidelines for schools.

Holst mentioned that at least a couple of classrooms — one at Blatchley, and one at Sitka High — will have over 30 students. He said that the building principals were going to try to beat the rush to order additional protective supplies.

“We’re looking at all kinds of dividers, plexiglass stuff, those sorts of things,” said Holst. “And I’m sure that Sondra (Lundvick) and Ben (White) will be able to figure that out.”

Sondra Lundvick and Ben White are the principals of Sitka High and Blatchley Middle School respectively.

How many students will populate other classes remains a bit of an unknown. The district’s census plummeted by over 100 students since the beginning of the pandemic, although around 60 or 70 of those may have been enrolled in the district’s REACH homeschool.

Holst was optimistic that between the proposed construction of a new Mt. Edgecumbe medical campus, and the homeporting of a new Coast Guard cutter, the district could see a rebound in student numbers. Also, compared to some places in the country, Sitka was looking more attractive all the time.

“You all watch the news like I do,” said Holst. “There’s so many miserable things going on around the country, people are looking for places like this to live. And it wouldn’t surprise me over time that our population didn’t just grow because we’re a safe place. The schools were operating all year. I mean, all the things that we talk about that have gone right this year, have gone wrong in a lot of other places.”

Holst encouraged the board to begin a conversation about how to fund Community Schools, student activities travel, and the Blatchley Pool next year. With over $1 million in CARES Act relief likely coming to the district, he cautioned against the temptation of using temporary money to pay for permanent programs. “Be careful how you spend that money,” Holst advised.

Nevertheless, how the school board resolves that problem long-term likely won’t trouble Holst. His interim contract is over at the end of June. School board vice-president Eric Van Cise said that he had recently greeted Sitka’s new school superintendent, Frank Hauser and wife Trisha, at the airport. Although Hauser won’t officially start until July 1, Van Cise suggested holding a work session in the near future to familiarize Hauser with the district.