A greenhouse at Evergreen Elementary School, August 2020.
(Sage Smiley / KSTK)

Wrangell’s school board has approved reopening schools next week. But the superintendent is warning that a critical staff shortage could throw a wrench in the plan.

The district still has not been able to fill any of the three health and sanitation aide positions, which are essential to the district’s COVID-19 health and safety plan. Superintendent Debbe Lancaster told the school board on Monday evening that if the administration can’t fill the positions in the next few days, they may have to reshuffle existing staff.  

“Part of the plan to open includes being staffed enough to be safe,” Lancaster said, adding: “if we cannot make this happen the way it needs to happen, which is with the masks and the hygiene and the cleanup and the social distancing, and the monitoring, that all of these things are taking place, then we’re not creating the safe environment that we need, and we are not going to be able to allow students back into the building.”

Lancaster says she’s set Thursday as a soft deadline to determine if the district can actually reopen next week. 

Under the “medium risk” Smart Start plan, elementary students in small cohorts will attend school half-time and participate in distance learning half-time. Middle and high school students will have regular seven-class period days Monday through Thursday and half days on Fridays, according to the plan. Yet there are other loose ends to be tied up in the week before school starts.

The district is also still working on establishing its communication plan in the event of a coronavirus outbreak at school. Lancaster said a full run-through of the district’s protocol would happen on Thursday. 

Enrollment for the coming school year remains far below normal. Enrollment at the three schools as of early this week was as many as 63 at the elementary school, 41 students at the middle school and 37 high schoolers. That’s just over half of the number that were registered at the three schools last year.

Lancaster says enrollment numbers might jump over the next few days, which could throw the whole reopening plan into jeopardy. That’s because there would be too many students and not enough teachers and aides.

“The biggest question that we have basically is: are we going to have everything in place to be able to open the buildings? It may be that we have everything in place in one or two buildings and not in a third building. It may be that we don’t have enough at all in any of the buildings,” Lancaster explained Monday evening.

Lancaster says it’s not clear why more families aren’t enrolling their children. Some community members spoke up to criticize the mask requirement for students. Penny Allen says she conducted an informal poll of fellow parents. She says most she talked to wanted masks to be optional or only worn when social distancing wasn’t possible. 

Allen asked the board to clarify or change the mask mandate currently in place on school property: “I’m asking that you make this a priority and either clarify your mandate–because it’s unclear–or revise it as soon as possible, and then put it out to us so that we can make our decision on how we’re going to proceed. Like, you know, with whether or not we’re going to put our kids in home school, or whatever each parent is thinking, it’s just we need this information so that we can make our decisions.” 

Other community members worried making masks optional would put more pressure on students who are already having a stressful time due to the pandemic. 

Superintendent Lancaster clarified that the mask policy has some flexibility but that generally the rule is that masks will be worn indoors. Students outside will not be required to cover their faces at all times, as long as social distancing is possible.

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