First day of school

Middle school students wear mandatory face coverings on Monday while arriving by bus to the first day of school at Schoenbar Middle School. Staff photo by Dustin Safranek

Ketchikan School District students started learning in-person on Monday with modified operations to help thwart outbreaks of the novel coronavirus in buildings.

District officials were unanimously enthusiastic about the return to school. No new cases of COVID-19 in Ketchikan had been connected to the reopening of schools this week as of Tuesday evening.

As part of a set of health and safety protocols approved by the Ketchikan School Board on Aug. 12, all schools share a basic set of precautions that are in place: All students must wear masks while in school; all students must receive a basic symptom check for COVID-19 before entering school buildings.

Beyond those measures, though, schools have been free to use more stringent guidelines, with significantly different results to their normal schedules. The Daily News spoke with administrators from each school to determine what safety measures schools have in place.

Five schools currently have annex space set aside for instruction — Ketchikan Charter School, the Tongass School of Arts and Sciences, Houghtaling Elementary School, Fawn Mountain Elementary School and Ketchikan High School. All but the last two are currently using those annex sites for instruction.

Sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders at KCS are currently learning at its annex site at Holy Name Catholic Church. Classes at the annex begins 10 minutes later than at the main building and ends 15 minutes later, as well. KCS students also are being dismissed at the end of the day according to their transportation methods, KCS Principal Kayla Livingston said in a Monday phone interview.

TSAS is currently using its annex — which it's calling "TSAS on Fairview," Principal Scott Huff said in a Tuesday phone interview — for K-2 instruction. Due to scheduling changes with school buses, students at the Fairview campus are starting school 40 minutes ahead of students at the main campus and finishing up classes 30 minutes early. Students at TSAS's main building begin learning at 9:10 a.m. and are dismissed at 3:30 p.m.

Children enrolled at Houghtaling Elementary School preschools, including the Pioneer Preschool, which had been located in the Ketchikan Pioneer Home, are instead learning in the administrative wing of Kayhi in the district's now-vacant business, payroll and human resources offices. Houghtaling earlier this year had been planning to use an annex at the Ketchikan Church of the Nazarene, but school officials said Tuesday there are no longer plans to use that space.

Fawn Mountain, meanwhile, will only use its annex at South Tongass Alliance Church if the district moves to a moderate risk level. Kayhi would take the same approach to determine whether to use its auditorium as an annex space, Kayhi Principal Jason House confirmed in a Tuesday phone interview with the Daily News.

Beyond the schools with annexes, most schools in the district also have new procedures to make student arrival go more smoothly. Students at Houghtaling Elementary School, Point Higgins Elementary School, Ketchikan High School and Ketchikan Charter School are being broken into groups upon arrival to reduce wait times for screening before entering the building.

Kayhi Principal Jason House explained in a Tuesday phone interview that screening took less time on Tuesday than on Monday, a trend he expects to continue as students and screeners settle into their new morning procedure.

Upon arrival, students are going straight to classrooms to avoid mingling and community spread.

Most students haven't seen significant changes to their schedules, except for Kayhi and Schoenbar Middle School, where block schedules have been implemented to reduce contact between students and teachers and to minimize out-of-class interactions. Both schools have implemented four-period days, with classes lasting about 80 minutes compared to roughly 50-minute class periods this time last year.

But while Kayhi students have their schedule set according to how they ranked their preferred classes in the spring, as Kayhi Principal Jason House said in a Sept. 21 phone interview, Schoenbar students are alternating their classes every other day, switching from academic-focused classes one day to elective classes the next, Schoenbar Assistant Principal Melissa Johnson explained in a Sept. 3 phone interview.

In between classes, schools are commonly requiring students to use hand sanitizer frequently and teaching students how to properly wash their hands. And students attending all but two schools in the district are eating lunches in classrooms rather than in shared spaces to avoid spreading the coronavirus to other teachers, students and families.

Ketchikan High School students have been split into two groups with separate lunch times this year according to their advisory teacher. The school campus is remaining open for lunch so that students can spread out more or eat off-campus. The school library has been opened as a space for eating lunch as well to provide more space for distancing.

Schoenbar Middle School has two periods for lunches, as it did last year, with students eating lunch in a shared space with social distancing measures in place, but they are restricted to only two students per table to maintain social distancing protocols.

Though most schools haven't chosen to repurpose existing classrooms for alternative uses, a handful have, including Hougtaling, and TSAS.

The library and music rooms at Houghtaling have been converted into big classrooms, Houghtaling Dean of Students Meredith Lundamo said in a Monday phone interview. Librarian Penny Ranniger is now teaching sixth-graders, while Houghtaling's music teacher has been moving from classroom to classroom for instruction.

Likewise, while TSAS already has an open layout, a space that had been two separate classrooms in previous years has been merged into a single large classroom to allow for better social distancing.

Other schools have made some changes to reduce opportunities for transmission between cohorts, as well. Several, including KCS and Schoenbar, have split hallways into one-way lanes similar to highways.

All those safety protocols seem to be working well, at least for the time being.

"These first two days have been great," House said in his interview Tuesday. "We're excited to have students and staff back in school. ... It feels really great to have everybody back."