The Ketchikan School Board on Wednesday voted to reopen schools in the fall at full capacity, adopting a revised reopening plan as a backup should the district see a surge in cases.
The decision is a victory for parents who for two months have raised concerns over and frustrations with a draft reopening plan that the board approved in late May, pushing instead for a return to a normal school schedule.
But district administrators still have more work to do — and more uncertainty to address for teachers and families — before that full reopening can be a reality.
The board presented a revised version of the draft plan to the public on Monday that was designed to address the original concerns of the community: namely, that students needed more time to learn in person when the community’s risk of transmission of the novel coronavirus was low.
Under the revised plan, presented to the public on Monday through virtual and in-person town hall meetings, sixth-grade students would transition to learn in person at Schoenbar Middle School one year earlier than they normally would, and eighth-grade students would learn in person at Ketchikan High School, to afford more time and space to elementary school students to learn while maintaining social distancing recommendations. And students still would resume classes two weeks later than scheduled at the beginning of the year to allow teachers time to prepare curriculum for teaching remotely, when necessary.
After a heated town hall meeting on Monday evening, more than a dozen parents came forward at the start of Wednesday’s special meeting to once again voice their complaints.
Five board members ultimately voted against the district’s revised reopening plan, with just two, Jordan Tabb and Tom Heutte, voting in favor of the plan.
Most of the board members who voted for the full reopening plan cited the island’s low COVID-19 caseload as evidence that schools could reopen safely, including Board Clerk-Treasurer Diane Gubatayao.
“Kids are out there whether or not they’re in school. They’re hungry to be around each other,” Gubatayao said. “Yesterday, I saw the entire, probably, day care center from PeaceHealth (Ketchikan Medical Center) walking down (Baranof), because, lo and behold, the sun was out. And those little kids — there had to be 30, 35 kids. And you know what, they were holding hands, because that’s a safety thing for little kids, but they were together, they were close, they were together. We’ve had summer camp, baseball, softball — kids hang out regardless, and we haven’t had that many cases here. All right? That’s how I’m thinking here.”
Board President Bridget Mattson agreed with parents that she felt there was room to improve the revised plan, and added that she wasn’t sure that it would be necessary.
“I really, really have appreciated how many people today said, ‘We like this plan. We just don’t think we need it yet,’” Mattson said. “I echo board members, that I don’t know that we will need it. I don’t know that we will.”
But Heutte argued against the use of current numbers to justify the full reopening. It was only due to the protective procedures Ketchikan had put in place, he said, that the numbers had been so low; to reverse course in the fall would unnecessarily put kids and adults alike at risk in the community.
After voting to reopen at 100% capacity, the board entered an executive session to discuss recent administrative changes within the district.
Ketchikan Education Association President Gara Cesefske confirmed in an interview Thursday that the changes involve four building administrators: Melissa Johnson, Kayhi assistant principal as well as its athletic director, is being moved to become the vice principal at Schoenbar Middle School; Cole Maxwell, currently assistant principal at Ketchikan High School, is set to become the school’s athletic director; Fawn Mountain Elementary School Principal Linnaea Troina is being moved to be Kayhi’s assistant principal; and Nick Higson, assistant principal at Houghtaling Elementary School, is being moved to be the principal of Fawn Mountain. KEA is a teachers’ union that represents 274 of the roughly 350 staff in the district, not including administrators.
Several parents at Wednesday’s meeting accused Lougee of trying to mask the personnel changes behind the vote on the reopening plan. The board entered an executive session with Lougee to discuss the changes after voting on the reopening plan. After about an hour of discussion, the board emerged from executive session, and Board Member Paul Robbins Jr. issued a statement about the session.
“Discussion of the board members and superintendent Lougee included improving communications between the board and the superintendent,” Robbins said. “We requested further clarification on the reasoning behind the administrative moves that were made so that we can better present it to the public as board members, and we look forward to evaluating the decision after the school year begins and we see how that decision plays out.”
The board did not take any action following the executive session.
Several questions that lingered after Wednesday’s meeting have been answered. Mattson explained in a Thursday phone interview with the Daily News that schools still will open two weeks later than had been scheduled prior to the coronavirus pandemic. And in an email sent to district staff on Thursday evening, Lougee wrote that students would be released early on Wednesdays, as they were before the pandemic.
“Masks, social/physical distancing, temperatures and symptom checks, and many other safety measures will continue to be a part of all our risk plans,” Lougee wrote.
The level of community virus spread that would cause the district to revert to the plan presented to the community Monday will be determined by the superintendent and the Ketchikan Emergency Operations Center. EOC Incident Commander Abner Hoage was quoted in an email as follows:
“The EOC has been in communication with the superintendents office and will continue to provide input to KGBSD on the situation and risks in Ketchikan which can be used as inputs into the school opening plans and when to implement other measures outlined in the Smart Start Plan,” the email stated. “It is not the role of the EOC to ‘determine our district's risk level and how our schools operate’ but we can and will continue to provide input in order to facilitate necessary decisions by School Administrators and the School Board.”
More information about the reopening plan will be released on the district website on Friday, the email stated.
A follow-up email indicated that sixth- and eighth-grade students will no longer be prematurely moving to Schoenbar Middle School and Ketchikan High School.
Still, many more questions have yet to be answered. Cesefske said in a Daily News interview on Thursday that she is scheduled to meet with Lougee next week to iron out the specifics of the reopening.
“I had a list of probably 100 questions that were sent to me (by KEA members) before noon,” Cesefske laughed.
Cesefske also said that KEA sent out a survey on Thursday to KEA members to assess how they felt about the reopening plan on a variety of issues. Over the weekend, KEA sent out a survey to its members along similar lines to determine how they felt about the revised reopening plan, which was initially announced on July 24, she said during the public comment portion of Wednesday’s meeting. Two hundred twenty-three of its members responded to that survey, with more than 90 responding within the first hour the survey opened.
In hearing from KEA members, Cesefske said, many were concerned about the plan the district released.
“I’m expecting that this survey is probably going to have even more responses because the teachers are very, very concerned now (that a full reopening is planned), and I’ve heard from more support staff that they also have a whole different set of concerns now that the Smart Start plan is different,” Cesefske said. “Our health aides is a group of people who are now very concerned, because they had enormous responsibilities under the 50% capacity, and under the 100% capacity, those job duties have just doubled. Teachers primarily are concerned with the safety,” she said, as are the special education paraprofessionals.
Members of KEA’s leadership will meet with the district administration next week, Lougee wrote in Thursday’s email.