MEHS Plans to Reopen with Kids Protected

Category: Local News
Created on Tuesday, 07 July 2020 16:03

By GARLAND KENNEDY

Sentinel Staff Writer

Mt. Edgecumbe High School has announced a plan for resuming in-person education this fall with a number of precautions in place to prevent transmission of the COVID-19 virus.

The state-run boarding school was abruptly shut down and the students sent home in March because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The plan for resuming classes stresses the need for regular cleaning, hand washing, mask wearing, and physical distancing, but MEHS Superintendent Janelle Vanasse said she hopes students will still receive the full high school experience.

“Part of what makes Mt. Edgecumbe so special is that students create real family relationships with other students, with RAs (resident advisors) with staff, and we need to be able to continue to do that. But we will not be able to do some of the closeness physically,” Vanasse said today.

She emphasized that plans are still in process and that MEHS is cooperating with the Sitka School District and City of Sitka in making a plan to protect against spread of the virus. She added that some uncertainty remains.

“We don’t have all the answers, nobody does right now. We expect to be navigating this and we’re happy to have partners in SEARHC. We have a really good relationship with the Sitka School District,” she said.

With the help of SEARHC, Mt. Edgecumbe High will have its own virus testing capability on campus.

The reopening plan states:

“The testing protocol may be adjusted with continued medical information and guidance; however, it is expected that students will be tested at the start of the year and routinely tested throughout the school year.”

Any student travel will involve testing and quarantines as well, the document says.

While close cooperation with local authorities remains high on MEHS’ priority list, Mt. Edgecumbe students likely will not be crossing the bridge to Baranof Island for what they call “town leave” unless virus risk becomes low, the superintendent said.

“The point where we are considered low risk, we would indeed allow students to go to town with a mask and social distancing,” Vanasse said. 

In moderate or high risk scenarios, the school reopening plan stipulates that all activities will remain on campus.

With reopening, students will have desks spaced at least three feet apart, the reopening plan states. Vanasse said boarding schools in Australia and New Zealand have served as models.

“They’re doing very well,” she said of those schools. “What they are doing with their classroom spacing, that is where we got to having desks in a row and facing one direction,” she said. Masks will be required when distancing is not possible.

“If we get to the point that we are requiring masks 24-7 its not going to be doable,” she said. “It’s really finding a place where kids have a break from their mask in places and situations where it’s safe. So it is reasonable for them to keep them on at times when you can’t socially distance.”

She added that school administration will keep updates on the local situation. The state-issued risk matrix for the prevalence of the COVID-19 virus is color-coded green, yellow, and red. Different risk levels initiate different protocols. Mt. Edgecumbe will be in “yellow” when students return. “Green” would indicate a lack of community spread. In “red,” Vanasse said, students would likely be sent home, as they were in March.

“If you’re getting community spread that cannot be identified or isolated very quickly, that is what we’re all really watching for and that would require some significant action,” she said.

She added that the autumn  cross country season remains uncertain, but that travel to communities for races would be possible only in a low-risk environment.

“What’s important is that we are all working to move through this and we’ve got plans, but we also need to remain flexible,” she said.

Vanasse also noted in addition to virus precautions students would have access to mental health services if needed.

“We already have pretty robust access to counseling, so that’s really helpful in these times. We don’t really need to boost up our number of counselors, we just need to make sure our counselors are prepared for what may come out of a pandemic,” Vanasse said.

Mt. Edgecumbe High’s full virus mitigation plan is available on their website http://mehs.ss13.sharpschool.com/home under the General + COVID tab.

The reopening plan for the Sitka School District is being drawn up by a task force of community and school district representatives, and is to be presented to the School Board for approval by the end of this month.