As the city contends with potential widespread exposure to the coronavirus, Unalaska's schools have begun to determine if and how they will provide in-person learning opportunities to students.
After the city made exceptions to its mandated 10-person gathering limit at a City Council meeting Tuesday — allowing schools to use up to 50 percent of classroom occupancy, or 10 people per room, whichever is greater — the district began looking to once again revise its Smart Start 2020 plan to allow students back into the building during high risk and "hunker down" scenarios.
But the school isn't planning to bring students back at 50 percent capacity, according to Superintendent John Conwell.
"We don't have any intention, in our planning, of bringing back those kinds of numbers because, of course, we can't social distance, and we can't keep folks six feet apart," Conwell said at a special school board meeting on Thursday. "What we were looking for with the city's mandate was to give us just some flexibility above that hard cap of 10."
The district is considering allowing small cohorts of students on staggered schedules back into the building, implementing hybrid remote and in-person delivery methods, as well as tailored learning methods that would allow families and teachers to choose between home-based and in-person learning.
While some stakeholders spoke in favor of reopening the schools to provide face-to-face education at the special work session, several UCSD staff members expressed concern about the dangers of bringing students back during the pandemic.
"I want to be a teacher in my classroom, teaching my students, helping them grow, enjoying my preschoolers," said Eagle's View Elementary Achigaalux teacher Joni Scott. "But at what expense? Should I have to risk my health, my life to teach in person during 'high risk' because we can't wait for a vaccine — because it's easier to teach in person and risk my safety? Will it be easier if someone on the island dies, gets medevaced or has severe health problems, all because we needed to open schools during high community spread?"
Despite some disagreement among the community as to what the best and safest path forward is, most stakeholders agreed that the inconsistency of transitioning between home-based and in-person learning is stressful and time consuming.
"We lose valuable teaching and learning time every time we switch back and forth between plans," said fourth grade teacher Lucy Ortiz. "So consistency is very, very important moving forward, even if we can just commit to a plan for a month at a time or a quarter, ideally."
Ortiz said the district also needs to have specific definitions and plans in place to ensure teachers, parents and students know what to expect.
"Rather than waiting and seeing and hoping, we need to know ahead of time what our plan is going to be," she said.
Another fourth grade teacher, Mary Heimes, suggested using flow charts and having specific plans for when the city and Emergency Operation Center (EOC) shift the coronavirus risk level and how families and staff will be notified in those instances.
In November, the district chose to keep its classroom doors open as the city confirmed its first isolated case of community spread and stayed at the medium coronavirus risk level. Staff and families were left in limbo as the district debated whether or not to continue in-person learning, and weren't notified that the schools would remain open until close to midnight that Tuesday night.
"We weren't sure that it was community spread yet and that caused a lot of stress among community members, families, and staff," said Heimes. "Those days did not feel good, knowing that we were possibly making a riskier decision in terms of [having] the students in the building."
It remains unclear how the district plans to revise its pandemic learning plan: how many students will be allowed in each classroom, what number of positive cases will be needed to close schools again, or even if kids will be coming back into the buildings. But Conwell said that decision will not officially be made without close consultation with the EOC and local public health officials.
The Unalaska school board will meet again to discuss possible revisions to the district's Smart Start plan on Jan. 20.