The Ketchikan School Board on Wednesday adopted one motion to change the Ketchikan School District's Start Strong mitigation plan: to make masking optional at a "Substantial" risk level for middle school and high school students and staff, effective Dec. 6., and to make masking optional for elementary school students and staff effective Jan. 4.

The change was approved 5-2 following a strong debate among board members that indirectly explored the district's commitments to its students and the community.

The current plan

Under the Start Strong plan, each Sunday afternoon, district administrators set a district-wide coronavirus risk level for the following week according to the number of active coronavirus cases in the community listed on that Sunday.

When there are five or fewer active cases, the district-wide risk level is set to "Low," and masking is optional for students and staff.

With six to 25 active cases, the district-wide risk level is "Moderate." The district's Start Strong Committee initially had required masking at "Moderate," but the board amended the plan at its Aug. 18 meeting to make it optional at that level instead.

A "Substantial" risk level is set when there are between 26 and 49 active coronavirus cases, while a "High" risk level is set for more than 50 active cases in the community. Prior to Wednesday's meeting, masking would be required at both of those risk levels.

Schools also have their own risk levels that are set by building administrators. School risk levels can be set to higher levels than the district-wide risk level, but not lower.

Since the school year started, though, schools haven't had many opportunities to set their own risk levels. The district has been at a "High" risk level all but two weeks of the current school year. Two weeks have occurred at a "Substantial" risk level.

The proposal

The proposal was put forth by Board Member Paul Robbins Jr. early in the discussion, with Board Clerk-Treasurer Bridget Mattson seconding the motion.

Robbins said that the district has done its part to protect the community, and that it's now time to start easing its mitigation protocols.

"We're two years into this. All right? It's time to start moving into treating it like the virus that it's going to be here forever. It's time to start getting back to some normalcy," said Robbins. "We can do that slowly, as we talked about, over the next couple of months. And if things get even crazier than they are now, this implementation plan allows us to come in the next couple of meetings and pull that right back."

(At the board's Nov. 10 meeting, District COVID Communications and Public Relations Director Linnaea Troina urged the board to relax the district's mitigation rules slowly and to make changes one at a time, rather than all at once, to give the district ample time to observe the effects of the changes.)

Robbins continued: "But (this change) still puts us stepping in the direction that we're being pushed by our community, and honestly, in my opinion, should be going based on where we are. We've protected the vulnerable. We've given every single person in this community, barring the children, which are about to get it, the opportunity to protect themselves by the most important aspect, according to all of our health professionals, which is the vaccine."

The community's vaccination rate has plateaued, he argued: Even with pediatric vaccines available, "we're going to get five, 600, maybe more young kids in the district, if that, and then we're done. The people who have decided not to get the vaccine are not going to get it. So let's start moving forward."

Setting an effective date at the beginning of next month would allow Ketchikan's high active case count to fall before implementing the change, he said.

"I put in the delay, even though we talked about doing high school and junior high immediately at the last meeting, because (I'd) like to see some of those case numbers come down before this is implemented — and I anticipate that will, if it follows the state and national pattern that we're seeing," said Robbins. "So by the time we get to the December 6th, we should be in that falling pattern we want to see, which will allow us to implement this change, which is being so passionately advocated for."

At the board's last regular meeting, Robbins argued that any changes to the mitigation plans should be implemented in middle and high schools first, because those students have had an opportunity to get vaccinated for some time.

What's affected

The discussion offered a chance for the board and staff to consider whom the change would affect.

Interim Superintendent Melissa Johnson advised that during a scenario when masking would be optional under the change, schools wouldn't be responsible for enforcing each family's masking preferences.

"We just need to make sure that when we do give out this authority to the parents, that it's their responsibility when they are touching base with their kids and that ... the school is not going to be responsible for making sure that they continue having their mask on if their parent wants them to," she explained.

Board Member Nicole Anderson also noted that the change wouldn't make masks optional on school buses because that setting is governed by federal mandates, which Troina later confirmed to the Daily News.

And Johnson clarified that the change approved on Wednesday wouldn't make masking optional at spectator events or for school activities to comply with Alaska School Activities Association requirements.

But it wasn't clear on meeting night, nor was it on Friday afternoon, how the policy would affect masking requirements for visitors to schools at a "Substantial" risk level.

Asked by Board President Stephen Bradford on Wednesday whether he intended to make masking optional for visitors at "Substantial," Robbins replied, "I'd be open to that being open to them."

Troina told the Daily News on Friday: "I believe they wanted it to be optional for visitors in 'Substantial,'" but at press time she was still "waiting for finalized approval of the wording."

Discussion

Anderson and Board Member Diane Gubatayao voiced their support for the change early in the discussion. Bradford, too, said the measure was a step in the right direction.

"I do have some concern that we don't have enough (substitutes), should there be an uptick in absences by our professional staff. Having said that, however, I also will say that I expressed at the work session and I still believe that we need to move towards an end to the masking requirements," Bradford said. "It's my hope that we can start to do that once we know that every parent who has the desire to have their child vaccinated will have had the opportunity to have their child vaccinated. I think at that point, we've got to start looking seriously at some significant changes."

Braxton Zink, the board's student member, pointedly disagreed with the proposal. He said it contradicted the board's goal of maximizing in-person learning for the 2021-22 school year.

(A preliminary draft of the district's Start Strong plan released over the summer would have made classes fully remote learning at a "High" risk level. After parents pushed the district to teach students in person, the district changed the plan to maintain in-person learning at all risk levels.)

If the board were to adopt Robbins' proposal, Zink argued, "there's going to be a huge amount of kids, some of them who probably should be wearing masks because they are in close contact with people who could get very sick — they're not going to wear masks and they're going to go to school. And what's going to happen is you're going to have a lot more kids getting COVID being in close contact with people getting COVID and being forced to go at home and test or quarantine at home. And this is a worst-case scenario for the School Board, because as we've spoken to ... in the past meeting and this one, it is one of our number one priorities to make sure that all kids are in school."

Board Member Jordan Tabb agreed, reiterating his comment from the board's previous meeting that any changes to the Start Strong plan should aim to keep kids in school. At that meeting, he suggested that the district allow student and staff close contacts of positive cases to skip quarantining if they are asymptomatic, similar to a policy the Anchorage School District instituted in September.

Earlier in Wednesday's meeting, Johnson told the board that the district was in talks with a local health clinic to help the district's testing efforts — District Nurse Kimm Schwartz is currently the district's only testing official — that would eventually allow the district to provide an opt-in "Test to Stay" program to students similar to other programs that districts have tried implementing.

Under a Test to Stay program, students identified as close contacts would be able to stay in school by agreeing to test for the virus daily for a set period after exposure, provided that they remained asymptomatic.

Troina confirmed to the Daily News on Friday that the district is aiming to begin its clinic partnership starting the week of Nov. 29, but she said the district hadn't yet decided whether the Test to Stay testing would be done through take-home test kits or at schools.

Tabb argued during the work session that the board should wait to change the masking protocol until after the district could see the results of the Test to Stay program.

"We're already preparing to roll out a Test to Stay initiative here that's going to help keep more kids in school. But if we're in a situation where kids aren't masked, that significantly changes who's considered a close contact in the classroom — it's a larger group of kids that are going to be identified as close contacts. I would prefer that we spend the next month, one, getting the vaccine rollout happening here with our pediatric doses of Pfizer vaccine, and also to see how our Test to Stay changes the numbers of kids who end up having to close-contact out, and then re-evaluate whether we want to change our masking rules in our January meeting."

Troina on Friday confirmed that Tabb was correct: all things being equal, more people would be considered close contacts in a maskless group than in a masked group.

Mattson, later in the meeting, said she would be voting for the measure, but had "a few strong concerns, and they go along with what Braxton talks about."

She noted that schools still would be able to raise their own risk levels to require masks in response to outbreaks, even if the district risk level does not require masking.

She also observed that in order to make those changes to the Start Strong plan, the district likely would need to develop contingency plans for school shutdowns.

"And that is heartbreaking to me, because we took it out based on all of the compromises that we tried to make this year and the fact that 50% of our plan does have masks optional," said Mattson. "I believe that if we're looking at rolling back the mitigation efforts that are left in the plan that are keeping the school going as they are, they're already stretching our capacity. We have to understand that we will need to make a plan for having children out of schools, which is heartbreaking to me, but I think that it would be something that would be onerous to have us deal with if that eventuality happens as an emergency. But it should be thought out and planned for so that we are prepared, since that's the direction that it seems that we're willing to go."

Tabb later in the meeting responded: "To me, that compromises our mission in the Start Strong plan to maximize in-person learning. If we're planning for, 'Well, if things get out of hand and we need to close the school, then we'll re-evaluate,' it's like, well, now we've admitted that it's preferable to close school and limit in-person learning rather than deal with the discomfort of having masks. I want us to maintain our mitigation strategies and beat COVID the right way."

Robbins in turn responded that the purpose of keeping kids in school was to prevent learning loss. Masks have been counterproductive to that end, he said.

"If teachers are having to spend a significant amount of their time being the mask sheriff, that's less time they're doing teaching period. So that's learning loss," said Robbins. "It is, with other considerations as we move forward, in the best interest of children to get these masks out of the situation; any distraction that we can take away from the teachers and the students in the classroom is beneficial to their learning."

The board concluded its discussion of Robbins' motion after about 25 minutes. The change passed 5-2, with Tabb and Board Member Keenan Sanderson voting against the motion and with Zink casting a dissenting ceremonial vote that did not count toward the final verdict.

Bradford noted during the discussion that the board will have a chance to review the changes at its regular meetings on Dec. 15 and Jan. 12.