Arriving Sitka High students were greeted by school mascots on Monday (8-23-21). Superintendent Frank Hauser said that universal masking would be required in schools until Sitka was down to “low alert”: one new infection per day or less, for two weeks. (SSD image/Facebook)

Sitka Schools opened on Monday (8-23-21), with a return to full, in-person learning for all students.

Both the school district and the community remain on “high” covid alert, however, and all students were required to wear masks.

Sitka’s back-to-school plan includes a scenario where face coverings are optional, but it could take some time to get there, and not everyone supports the idea.

Note: Links to the Sitka School District’s Mitigation Plan and Alert Level Protocols can be found at the Sitka School District website.

The Sitka district is invested in the idea that in-person learning is the better option for students, despite the risks.

At the most recent meeting of the Sitka School Board on August 18, Superintendent Frank Hauser stressed that the district’s safety plans had worked.

“We had no secondary COVID transmission last year in schools,” said Hauser. “This year’s plans and mitigations are not new, they build upon last year’s successes. They also look ahead to a time when COVID cases drop significantly in our community. Again, we currently have over 100 cases in 14 days in the community. Our high threshold starts at 15.”

Two new factors are in play this year, however: The delta variant, and the vaccine. The delta variant is driving high infection rates across the country, primarily in unvaccinated individuals. Although a surprisingly high number of Sitka’s 12-and-older student population is vaccinated, Hauser said that the district believed that universal masking was the safest course of action.

 “We do not have a district distinction between masking for vaccinated and unvaccinated students at this time 68% of our students aged 12 to 18 are vaccinated,” Hauser said. “But schools don’t have a way to monitor vaccine status for COVID-19. We can’t know at a glance who has been vaccinated and who hasn’t. So everyone will be wearing a mask. Masks are also required on all public transit, including buses by federal order.”

The district safety plan has some flexibility if the community’s alert level drops into “moderate.” Although masking will still be required, spectators will be allowed back into district sporting events. But it’s not likely that Sitka’s infection rate will drop below one-per-day for the fall volleyball season. Hauser counseled patience.

 “But I’m going to ask you to give us a little bit of time with our students only and then we’ll look at bringing spectators back,” he said.  “One consideration for us is that limited seating in the Sitka High bleachers. In the meantime, volleyball and most of our sporting events will be broadcast online.”

If the community alert level drops to “low” — or fewer than seven cases in two weeks — the safety plan allows for optional face coverings. That’s contrary to guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control, which earlier this month recommended universal masking in schools for now. The problem is twofold: As Hauser said, you can’t know who’s vaccinated and who’s not among the eligible population in schools, and until a vaccine has been authorized for children under 12, face coverings remain the best way to protect that age group and keep them in school.

Lakrisha Johnson, Education Director for the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, urged the school board to align with tribal policies, and go with the latest advice from the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“And I would like to speak on behalf of myself and the Tribe in support of aligning those mitigation efforts with CDC and AAP, which would require masks at all levels despite vaccination status,” said Johnson. “And that is, again for myself personally, and the stance of the Tribe.”

Hauser said that the district’s start-up mitigation plan had been vetted by the healthcare community, including SEARHC chief medical officer Dr. Elliot Bruhl, SEARHC medical director Dr. David Vastola, and public health nurse Denise Ewing. He added that the district had applied for, and received, a grant from the state Department of Health and Social Services to hire a COVID-19 Screening Coordinator, who would be able to administer optional rapid tests in school buildings through the spring of 2022.