Unalaska School Administrators Address Island's Response To First COVID-19 Case Of Community Spread

Nov 27, 2020

Despite spikes in coronavirus case counts across the nation, superintendent John Conwell said he supports the city's decision to keep the schools open.
Credit Laura Kraegel/KUCB

Unalaska's schools remained open after the city confirmed its first case of community spread of COVID-19 earlier this month.

Under the city's previous COVID-19 emergency response plan, the first case of community spread on the island would trigger an immediate shift to the high risk threshold and subsequent closures of Unalaska's schools.

However, the city's multi-agency Unified Command chose to stay at 'medium' and changed its risk thresholds because they determined that the positive case was an isolated event. So schools and other organizations were able to stay open to the public.

Despite spikes in coronavirus case counts across the nation, superintendent John Conwell said he supports the city's decision to keep the schools open.

"I do agree with the idea that we should maybe make a more nuanced approach that is not just a black and white call," said Conwell. "I have a lot of trust and faith in our local medical experts to get to the root cause or the root reasons that we might have a local case. And so I do think there's some gray area between community spread and nothing."

Conwell said that one of the main concerns board members and staff expressed, following the positive case, was in response to the timing of when people were notified that the schools would remain open, which happened around midnight that night. He said this case of community spread was a learning experience for staff and administrators.

"It was kind of like a fire drill — you always learn from every one that you do," said Conwell. "That was the first close call we've had, and I think what we learned from it was to really step up the communication, even when maybe there's nothing to communicate."

Junior high and high school principal Jim Wilson said that the staff and administration have been preparing to move to distance-based learning since the pandemic hit Alaska in March and schools originally closed. Despite that, he said there is still work that needs to be done.

"I think that [case of community spread] woke everybody up and [the administration] realized that while we had some tentative plans and some soft plans in place, that we needed to do some immediate work to make sure that we were ready to pivot tomorrow, if we needed to. So we kind of sprung into action."

According to Wilson, all students have computers they can take home if the district moves to home-based learning. But the administration has also worked to fill in some of the gaps and finalize more concrete plans, such as giving staff templates they can use to talk to families about transitioning to distance education.

Wilson said that the process of preparing for remote learning involves a lot of pieces and it takes time to put those together. But, he said, the district has been very fortunate that there haven't been any confirmed cases of community spread sooner — and that they've been able to remain open to students.