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UCSD Students Slated To Return To Classrooms Feb. 1

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Laura Kraegel/KUCB
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Under the district's latest revision of its Smart Start 2020 plan, Unalaska students will once again return to their classrooms beginning Monday, Feb. 1. 

The Unalaska School Board approved the district's revisions five to one at its special meeting on Monday. After suggesting opening schools later in the semester, Fernando Barrerra was the only board member to vote against moving forward with the district's revisions.

Under the plan, cohorts of 10 or fewer students can return to in-person learning while the city is at the high coronavirus risk level. And classes will be delivered through a hybrid model that includes both in-person and remote learning, where students will attend classes in the afternoons, Monday through Thursday, according to Superintendent John Conwell. Teachers will also have the option to work from home. 

The smart start revision is meant to limit transitions in and out of home-based learning and to give families and staff more time when transitions are necessary, Conwell added.

"There may still be some back and forth," he said. "But we're hoping that, if we do go into a less-restrictive or lower risk level, that we will have some time to get adjusted so students and teachers and everyone have a chance to get their heads around that [transition] before we bring everybody back." 

Students will only return to classes next week if the city reports fewer than six active cases of community spread of the virus at that time. Similarly, when any active community acquired cases are found among the school population, a classroom or school building may close until it is cleared to reopen, according to the plan. 

A preliminary school district survey reported that around 50 percent of teachers and students are in favor of returning to their classrooms. Substitutes and additional staff will be available to help in the classrooms of those teachers who choose to work remotely as well, according to Conwell.

"The administration acknowledges that at some point, just like any year, if we had a big flu outbreak, and a certain percentage of our teachers or support staff are home with the flu, we'd have no choice but to close the school," Conwell said. "We'll try not to get to that tipping point, but that is a possibility." 

Despite reassurance from administration, Eagle's View Elementary Achigaalux fourth grade teacher Lucy Ortiz said the timing to reopen schools during the start of the busy winter fishing season may not be the best choice.

"This is our island's busiest and therefore, riskiest time of the year," said Ortiz. "As of Friday, two of our major processing plants are on lockdown, and 18 percent of our island's total COVID cases for the entire pandemic were active."

While she is happy that the COVID-19 vaccine became available to Unalaska teachers and staff this week, she said opening the schools before those vaccines become fully effective, after the second dose, would put them at a much higher risk.

"We are close to having this protection for our teachers, but we are not there yet," said Ortiz.

Board member Carlos Tayag said that while this plan provides a useful "road map" for now, he expects to see revisions as the district moves forward and circumstances change. 

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