Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966

School board approves back-to-school plan

Appeals to community to help keep school open

 

August 6, 2020



Part-time classroom schooling, increased focus on outdoor education, a compressed schedule, lunch and breakfast in the classroom and mandatory face coverings for students and staff are among the mitigation and procedural measures approved Tuesday by the Haines Borough school board.

The bulk of the district’s plan aligns with the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development’s (DEED) “Smart Start” plan, including mandatory face coverings.

In an effort to adjust to the myriad changes in the school’s day-to-day operation, students will go to school part-time during the first two weeks for 5.5 hours per day. Children will be divided into two groups, “A” and “B.” Group A will attend school Mondays and Thursdays and Group B will attend on Tuesday and Friday. Group A begins Aug. 20 and Group B begins Aug. 21.

Four committees will form and meet at least weekly to make recommendations to superintendent Roy Getchell about the implementation and reopening plan. The school board will make decision again on Sept. 1 about the reopening plan. Depending on that action, and on the COVID-19 case count in the community, the school will aim to open five days a week on Sept. 8 and the school would be prepared to transition to online learning if case counts rise to the level of “high risk.”

DEED’s Smart Start plan and the Haines Borough Emergency Operations Center (EOC) define risk by low, medium and high categories. The EOC’s threshold for high risk includes nine active cases in the community. Superintendent Roy Getchell said a school “health advisory committee” will develop its own threshold for what high risk looks like.

“I would anticipate we would be a little bit lower than that...that our (high risk) zone would come sooner than theirs,” Getchell said.

The school would also close for at least a day if a school-related case was identified.

Getchell told the board that the plan is tentative, and that given the nature of the pandemic and the almost weekly changes at the state and national level, flexibility is crucial.

“We know again that whatever is done tonight will surely change, but it will help give us a direction to what we hope will be a very successful school year,” Getchell said.

Other components of the plan, defined by state guidelines, include:

-If a student displays a COVID-19 symptom, they will be sent home. If they are tested and receive a negative result, the student can come back to school within 24 hours without a fever. If they do not get tested, they must stay home for 10 days. If a family member of a student tests positive, the student will need to stay home for 14 days.

-Parents must prescreen children for COVID-19 symptoms at home.

-Students will enter and exit the facility through designated entryways.

-Parents will be limited to the front office area when visiting the school.

-No open gym or community events will be held until further notice.

The school will use a new online learning platform called the Alaska Statewide Virtual School for students who stay home. The platform comes with preloaded K-12 courses that teachers can customize. Students move through the lessons at their own pace.

Board member Michael Wald wanted the plan to emphasize outdoor education at school and if classes go online. In addition, he wanted all recesses to be held outside.

“I would encourage us to expand our definition of what acceptable weather is and potentially provide outdoor gear,” Wald said.

The board ultimately voted to add language that places a priority on outdoor learning and recess, rather than make it mandatory.

The board also approved an amendment to come up with an asymptomatic testing strategy.

About 40 people attended the meeting via Zoom. Three members of the public spoke during public comment. Parent Emily McMahan asked the board to continue with smaller class sizes throughout the year and to increase outdoor time.

Pam Long encouraged the board to come up with out-of-the-box ideas for continuing sports and other activities by planning virtual events or training where students can remain distanced.

Art teach Giselle Miller wanted clarification on how teachers would be tested for the virus. Getchell said there are plans for teacher testing, but they recently found out the school’s insurance policy doesn’t cover asymptomatic testing. “That would be something we would need to get financial support (for). Maybe it’s working with our borough to help us fund that,” Getchell said. “That is not eliminated, it just needs to be ironed out.”

The board approved the plan unanimously. The board also agreed to write a letter to the community asking residents to follow health protocols in an effort to keep the school open.

Board member Sara Chapell said she was concerned that borough leadership isn’t being proactive enough and that a potential mask mandate, which the EOC would consider if the community reaches “high risk” status, would come too late.

“That plan when I look at it almost guarantees that the school will need to shut down instead of getting ahead of it,” Chapell said. “It feels very reactionary to me.”

Getchell cautioned the board against taking an adversarial approach with the borough. “They have been very deliberate to not step on our toes with our plan. I think as long as whatever we do is seen as working with them and in tandem with them, is very important. We are going to have to have help. Any plan in Haines, if people are not doing the things they need to do, those plans are guaranteed to fail.”

Chapell said she understands the feeling of not wanting to rock the boat or create a fight but that “the fear of that fight is maybe guiding the plans.”

Wald said he thinks any messaging from the board should be aimed at parents and the general public rather than borough government officials and EOC members.

“I think we’re going to be more productive if we target the parent community,” Wald said. “I think that’s a more appropriate role. Personally, I share your frustrations with the borough’s plan, but I think they should have their realm and hope they let us have our realm.”

The board ultimately voted unanimously to write a letter to the editor encouraging people to follow Centers for Disease Control and Alaska Department of Health and Socials Services guidelines, which includes social distancing, washing hands and wearing face coverings in public places.

“It’s going to require an effort from the entire community if we’re going to stay open,” Wald said.

 
 

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