The Unalaska City School District plans to move forward with reopening its schools for the upcoming academic year.
The district plans to open under the state's Smart Start 2020 framework on August 19. The first three days will be a soft opening, "where just a third of the students will come each of the first three days," said Superintendent John Conwell at a special school board meeting on Wednesday.
"Planning for the reopening of Unalaska Schools has been ongoing since last spring," said Conwell. "A working group of administrators and teachers met during the first week of June to develop the framework for the school reopening plan. Using the planning template provided by the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development."
According to Conwell, DEED has requested that school districts submit their plans by August 7 and no later than the first day of school.
With the infinite number of unknown variables, he said, planning for the reopening and operation of schools during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a daunting task.
Dr. Murray Buttner, a physician at Iliuliuk Family and Health Services, said that pediatricians and child psychologists agree that the risks of keeping schools closed far outweigh the risks of the virus spreading among the school age population. And Unalaska students are best served in an in-person setting, interacting with effective teachers, he added.
"Until we get community spread, the kids should be very safe in school," said Buttner. "We want them to be there socializing and learning. And then once we start getting community spread, we'll just have to see how much there is."
While Unalaska has reported 96 positive cases of the coronavirus to date, almost all have been within the seafood industry and none have been attributed to community spread. This has prompted the city to maintain its assessment of the local risk level, which is currently set at "medium," per the thresholds established by Unalaska's multi-agency unified command Emergency Operations Center (EOC).
Within its plan to reopen, the school board provided a draft of operations to be followed under three different risk thresholds: low, medium, and high. Under each threshold, there are guidelines and mandates that should be followed. Within the medium risk category—where the schools are currently at—different parts of the school, such as libraries, cafeterias, and playgrounds contain specific mitigation guidelines, like student capacity and what types of Personal Protective Equipment will be required.
In the cafeteria, for example, Conwell said plexiglass shields will be put up at lunch tables to help separate students into smaller groups. And hallway locker access will be staggered.
Several aspects of the board's plan, including the list of operations and conditions, are still evolving.
Last week, in their reopening draft, the school board published plans to take temperatures and check symptoms of all students entering the building. However, because of recent changes in guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Conwell said that the entire section is being reconsidered.
According to Dr. Buttner, the risks of doing these COVID-19 symptom screenings in children outweighs the benefits.
"Anyone could be asymptomatic with this virus, but more so children," said Buttner. "And so by checking them all for symptoms every morning at the school and checking their temperatures at the school, you wouldn't be keeping the virus out."
When board members and parents that attended the meeting expressed concern about students' ability to maintain social distancing behaviors, especially after a long period of isolation from one another, Conwell said this upcoming school year will likely involve some balancing acts.
"We don't want our schools to become so rigid and inflexible, and sort of just unfun, that students don't want to be here," said Conwell. "We believe we have great teachers here, we have great staff. We believe we can teach our students some routines."
The school board will meet again Aug. 5 to further discuss the UCSD reopening plan.