The Ketchikan School Board on Wednesday agreed to hold a special meeting next Wednesday to hear from public health experts and possibly gym teachers to determine whether to start rolling back changes to the Ketchikan School District's Start Strong COVID-19 mitigation plan.

The board signaled some interest in changing a mitigation policy that has required students in gym class to wear masks during exercise, an issue that has rankled many parents in the district since the beginning of the school year. But it's unclear when, or if, such a change might be implemented.

Wednesday's meeting was long even for a COVID-centric meeting, lasting nearly four-and-a-half hours.

Public testimony lasted until 7:45 p.m., nearly two hours into the meeting. Dozens showed up to urge the district to make masking optional for all students. Among those who spoke in favor of optional masking were Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly candidate Darlene Dollimont-Svenson.

The Start Strong plan makes masking optional at a "Low" and "Moderate" community risk level, when fewer than 25 cases of COVID-19 are active in the community. But since the beginning of the school year, Ketchikan's active case count has nearly continuously exceeded 50, meeting the threshold to make masks required under the district's "High" risk level.

Ketchikan High School Softball Coach Kalea Allen spoke at the beginning of the meeting to ask the board to approve a request on the agenda to allow the softball team to go on a trip to South Carolina in April.

Allen also noted that she ran two summer camps for the Rec Center in 2020 and 2021 that didn't require masks, and explained that "we never once had a COVID outbreak. If a kid was sick, they just called in and said 'we're not coming.' We asked if they went on a trip that they stayed home, did their quarantine." She didn't take a stance on the district's masking protocol, but noted that "it is possible, if everyone does their part." (Acting Superintendent Melissa Johnson cautioned near the end of the work session that the summer program numbers were low because "I don't think they tested anyone.")

After taking a 10-minute recess, the board reconvened for its work session.

The board and district administrators spent the first third of the work session reviewing the district's Start Strong procedures for President Stephen Bradford and Vice President Keenan Sanderson, the board's two newest members, giving the board a break from the high emotions of the public comment section.

The remainder of the work session, which in its entirety stretched an hour and a half, turned into a discussion of whether and how to start rolling back some of the district's mitigation protocols, led by Board Member Paul Robbins Jr., who nudged the board toward discussing "that a lot of these mitigations should be sunsetted," a move that Board Member Nicole Anderson had advocated at the board's August discussion of the draft Start Strong plan.

Robbins pointed to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data showing a spike in teen suicides since the beginning of the pandemic. The CDC report from which that data was pulled "might be partially affected by mitigation measures, such as physical distancing, lack of connectedness in schools (to) teachers and peers, and anxiety about family health and economic problems which are all a part of this pandemic."

Using those figures, Robbins calculated that, nationwide, five times as many students had died of suicide since the pandemic began than had died of COVID-19.

"So when we're talking about sunsetting some of these mitigation measures, especially the ones about kids getting together, we are talking about kids saving lives, and potentially a considerably larger amount of lives than we are with just masking or by restricting what they can do as far as sports, and being able to interact with each other. So, I want that to be a consideration as we discuss this sunset, because these parents aren't just angry because they don't want to see their kids in masks. They're seeing the same data we are."

Board Member Jordan Tabb responded that he was cautious about reaching that conclusion from those figures.

"I worry that as we talk about a sunset, we're imposing our wants — which, we all want to be done with COVID — onto the reality of the situation. There's a sunset built into this, which is case levels," Tabb said. "Like, if we have procedures that work, case levels come down and mitigation measures can be eased. If (we say), 'We hope that vaccinations will increase, that pediatric vaccinations will happen based on people who want to do that, and we're really hoping we'll see a reduction in case levels,' well we'll see a reduction in case levels. But if we start removing mitigation measures based on what we would like to see happen, it's quite likely we'll see the opposite."

He added: "As someone who does work specifically in the field of working with childhood trauma and childhood suicide, I can absolutely say, yes, COVID is a factor. COVID causes stress. COVID causes depression. COVID causes isolation. But, that doesn't necessarily mean that mitigation measures cause these things."

Tabb further quoted District Nurse Kimm Schwartz as saying: "I feel the community is demonstrating, by its COVID numbers, what happens when masks are no longer mandated."

Schoenbar Middle School Principal Sherri Boehlert asked the board to consider more precisely what such "sunsetting" would entail — not just for students, but for teachers and administrators as well, and for other policies like building visitors and spectatorship at activities.

Though by the end of the work session most members of the board had expressed cautious interest in repealing some of the district's mitigation rules, there was not broad consensus on which protocols should be rescinded first.

With the FDA's emergency approval of a vaccine dose for children ages 5-11 last week, Bradford suggested the board consider making masks optional for vaccinated students once there has been ample opportunity for students to get vaccinated — perhaps soon after students return from the district's Christmas break.

There was some agreement between a handful of board members that the district ought to consider making masks optional in gym classes, a recurring source of frustration for many parents who have spoken at meetings in the past several months.

Still, District COVID Communications and Public Relations Director Linnaea Troina urged that any changes to risk levels be implemented separately, not all at once, to see whether the changes are working as intended.

Braxton Zink, the board's student member, agreed. Under last year's Smart Start mitigation plan, he said that he often felt frustrated by constantly switching between remote work and in-person learning. This year has been a dramatic improvement by virtue of being fully in-person, he said, even at a high risk level.

"Like, going on PE, yeah, it's terrible, it's inconvenient to have a gross mask," said Zink. "But what's worse than having a gross mask in PE? Not being able to go to PE at all. What's worse than having a slight inconvenience because a teacher tells you to ... put your mask back up? Not being able to be in that classroom at all."

Tabb also mentioned that, "to our conversation last week about our fiscal challenges, we have a self-financed health insurance plan. I'm concerned that the district cannot afford a COVID outbreak among staff — there's very significant costs that are encumbered with that," a statement to which District Business Manager Katie Parrott nodded.

Board Clerk-Treasurer Bridget Mattson added: "My stated goal, and I believe ... at the beginning of this year, our goal was to keep children in school, period. It wasn't necessarily any more to mitigate risk a small risk, but it was to keep children in school. And part of that consideration is the staff. The reality is, is that, we are seeing teachers with COVID now, even teachers that are vaccinated. And the nice thing is, is that, there's some great, I mean, like, antivirals are getting approved, and we're in a very different situation mortality-wise than we were a year ago, which is wonderful. The reality is, is that we can't run schools without staff. And if we have a lot of spread amongst our staff due to taking off mitigation, we have to consider, kind of like Braxton talked about, not being able to be in school."

Mattson suggested following the lead of the Anchorage School District, which has kept its mask requirement but eliminated "close contact quarantining in order to keep their students in school because they believe, full stop, the safest place for their students is at school," she explained. "Full stop. So unless they're symptomatic for COVID, where they would have to go home, they don't close contact quarantine, in order to keep children in school."

Board members also suggested that if mitigation protocols are to be rolled back, that process should begin with Kayhi, because, compared to schools with younger students, "there is nobody at that school that has not been given every opportunity to protect themselves (with the vaccine.)" Mattson and Anderson suggested that Revilla Junior Senior High School and Schoenbar Middle School be included in making those changes by a similar reasoning.

By a majority show of hands, the board agreed to call a special meeting next Wednesday to discuss some of those changes, including whether to set a possible date for rolling back some of the Start Strong health protocols. The meeting would include time for public comment, which would be limited to five minutes for each person testifying.

An agenda-setting meeting for that special meeting is scheduled for 9 a.m. on Friday.

Also on Wednesday, the board unanimously approved a Ketchikan High School softball team trip to South Carolina in April and approved a policy revision to clarify what can be discussed in the board's agenda-setting meetings.