It’s been full-masking in Sitka’s schools since opening day in late August, 2021. The district has since experienced relatively few infections, and no school buildings have been closed. “I’d like to thank everyone for working together to support the mitigations that are keeping our schools open, and our students in school and participating fully in all the activities that they want to participate in,” Superintendent Frank Hauser told the Sitka School Board. (SHS photo)

None of the hostility seen at local school board meetings across the country recently by anti-masking groups was apparent at the November 1 meeting of the Sitka School Board.

With zero cases currently associated with the district, the tone was optimistic that mitigation measures were working, and that students were making up for time lost in the past year.

There is organized opposition to masking in Sitka, but so far the acrimony has been confined to meetings of the Sitka Assembly. In contrast, at the school board, two parents stepped forward in support of the district’s mitigation strategies. 

K.K. Prussian was one of them. 

 “I just want to say thanks to you guys, for really doing the right thing with this pandemic we’re all living through right now,” she said. ” I’m excited my kids are in school, they’re learning with a full day of school, they’ve got their activities that are keeping them engaged in relationships with their friends, and keeping them active physically and mentally.”  

The district has had as many as eight cases at one time associated with its buildings this fall, but an in-house testing program has prevented a more widespread outbreak. Superintendent Frank Hauser said that the district was staying the course, because the results spoke for themselves.

“We currently have zero, let me repeat zero COVID-19 cases associated with our buildings,” said Hauser. “We know that this could change tomorrow. But it’s good news to celebrate today. So I’m really excited about that. I know I’ve said it before, but I think it’s important to every single time to recognize our SmartStart teams of teachers, staff, parents and community members who worked on our mitigation plans. The parents who came out to our parent listening sessions at the beginning of the year, and Dr. Bruhl, and Dr. Vastola, who reviewed all of our mitigation plans. I’d also like to thank everyone for working together to support the mitigations that are keeping our schools open, and our students in school and participating fully in all the activities that they want to participate in.”

In addition to masking, the district is following the US Centers for Disease Control’s guidelines for social distancing — which recommend three feet of social distancing in schools, rather than six feet in other public spaces.

Pacific High principal Mandy Summer said this was a huge boon for her building, which now has over 40 students.

“We have kids cooking again, in the kitchen. This is a big highlight for us,” said Summer. “Gosh, for the last almost a year and a half, we’ve been putting meals into go boxes and giving them to students that way, and the kitchens a little bit too small to have students in the kitchen with past COVID restrictions. But now with the three feet of distancing, we’re able to have students back in the kitchen and cooking lunches for us.”

The other building principals reported similar benefits in their buildings. There was consensus among administrators that — despite mitigation measures — in-person school was far preferable to remote learning. 

Baranof principal Jill LeCrone said this was the case in her building, even under extraordinary circumstances.

“So the first and most exciting thing is we survived the day after Halloween, with like, five, six and seven year olds, with not too many problems,” said LeCrone. “Not too many problems.”

Blatchley principal Ben White was also focused on positive outcomes. In a reversal of the typical disciplinary phone call home from a principal, White said that he spent last week calling all the parents of eighth-graders — who were doing just fine.

 “And what occurred to me is there was like 65 phone calls home out of like 84 families,” said White. “And that’s not to say that the other kids didn’t deserve a phone call. But the kids that we try to call home and other kids almost fall under the radar, you know, they’re they’re not flamboyant. They’re not demanding of time. They’re just kids who are always doing what they should. And it occurred to me that that’s more than 75% of the class. And it’s just great to be in a place where we can do that sort of thing and call the families and they appreciate it. And I always tell the families ‘Man, I appreciate it more than you trust me. Thanks for allowing me to make this call.'”

The Sitka School Board wrapped up its November 1 meeting in executive session, to discuss negotiations with the Sitka Education Association, which represents the district’s certified teachers. The unusual Monday meeting was due to scheduled travel this week by several board members to the annual conference of Alaska Association of School Boards in Anchorage.