School district will hear updates on COVID-19 guidelines Dec. 8

Oshiana Black addresses the Cordova School Board. (Aug. 11, 2021) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Cordova School Board officials will consider updates on COVID-19 mitigation measures when the board convenes its Dec. 8 meeting, said Alex Russin, the city’s superintendent of schools.

Russin issued a letter to parents, the community, staff and students on Friday, Nov. 19, reminding them that the school district has been working with the community’s medical response team and encouraging increasing vaccinations, including those now available for younger children.

“We look forward to hearing perspectives and guidance related to our mitigation strategies, including universal masking,” he said.

Russin reminded parents and others that the district’s top priority has been to provide a safe and healthy learning environment for students while keeping students in school, rather than switching to online-only learning, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

“With everyone’s concerted effort we have been successful in maintaining in-person learning this school year, unlike many schools in Alaska,” he wrote.

The school board discussed during four meetings in the summer of 2021 plans for 2021-2022 school operations regarding guidelines by the school board and district administration.

On each occasion, emphasis was placed on a “layered” approach to implementing key mitigation strategies, which were effective in helping to remain open for students during the 2020-2021 school year, including physical distancing, hand-washing and cleaning protocols and universal making, Russin said. The layered approach means that the district implements strategies consistently, monitoring the environment and conditions in the school setting based on implementation, and then adjusting strategies as needed, he said.

Based on the community and district’s desire to resume full school days as a priority for students, physical distancing like last year is a strategy that we knew would be a bit more difficult to implement, due to the sheer number of students in the buildings or classrooms at a given time, he said. So the district pulled back on this mitigation and kept other strategies in place and, to date, there have been no known transmissions in schools, although known positive cases in school have been present without transmission occurring, he said.

Katie Jo Roemhildt, center, and others at a Cordova School Board meeting that focused largely on the issue of compulsory masking in schools. (Aug. 11, 2021) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

The district is now considering modifications to universal masking.

Barb Jewell, chair of Cordova’s board of education, also addressed a letter to the same group, acknowledging that masking in schools continues to be a hot topic.

“Like many in the community the board is eager to make masking voluntary in school buildings when it is determined to be safe to do so,” Jewell said.

She reminded the public that throughout the pandemic the school district has relied on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, the state Department of Education and Cordova’s local medical response team to design and implement safe practices with regard to the virus.

“The overall goal has been to keep our students and our staff in school, face to face full time,” she said.

Jewell also reminded the community that the school district had to adjourn one meeting because some attendees refused to use masks provided, in compliance with building rules. At the subsequent meeting parents who refused to wear masks and refused to leave were escorted out of the building by police.

“While there are certainly many different opinions about masks, the district’s rule is clear: right now masks are required to be worn while in the building,” Jewell said. “The board is responsible for upholding the mitigation plan and safety practices.”

Jewell said she is looking forward to hearing from the medical response team at the December meeting and is optimistic about being able to make changes in mitigation plans in the near future.

Meanwhile, she said, “we are also grateful that unlike many other schools we have been able to maintain… uninterrupted full time school.”