Ketchikan Working to Find Answers for Wrestling Tournament Mishap

    Ketchikan and Mt. Edgecumbe wrestlers compete at the Brandon Pilot Invitational meet earlier this season in Juneau. (Klas Stolpe)

    Juneau, Alaska (KINY) - Now with more than 20 coronavirus cases in five Southeast communities, all possibly related to the Ketchikan High School Bill Weiss Wrestling Tournament and a small schools Region V Tournament at the same venue, the Ketchikan Gateway Borough School District is still working diligently with the city’s Emergency Operations Center to discover exactly what happened.

      “It is in process,” said Katie Parrott, who was named Ketchikan Gateway School District acting superintendent as of Monday. “There is not much more I can say about that. I think that we understand that this is such a high public interest situation that we are trying to speed it up. But then, of course, this is happening in the midst of lots of other changes and things that we are trying to attend to. We are really wanting to gather all of the facts and have a really thorough understanding of what happened.”

      Parrott said that there was an initial impression that the district did not have any testing for all student athletes.

      “That is not accurate,” she said. “Until there are more details that is all I can say.”

      Parrott said she has lived in Ketchikan her entire adult life and was taking the matter personally.

      “I feel bad,” she said. “I feel like the impression that some other communities are getting is that 'we didn’t care.' Like it was maybe a situation where we didn’t care about the other communities or our own community. That is not true. We care tremendously about the impact that our programs and decisions have on other communities and Southeast and particularly our own community as well but not exclusive to our own community.”

      By Thursday, at least 11 students and two staff members from Ketchikan High School tested positive for COVID-19, along with five other residents, as part of the high school outbreak.

      Seven teams had attended the Ketchikan tournament and five cases have been identified in four other communities - Craig, Klawock, Mt. Edgecumbe, Sitka and Wrangell - that participated in the tournament.

      Region V Executive Committee President Jaime Cabral had sent a warning letter to Ketchikan high and ASAA Executive Director Billy Strickland after the Ketchikan tournament stating: “Due to Ketchikan High School’s actions, Region 5 schools and communities have been subjected to unnecessary health and safety risks related to COVID-19. This letter is to be considered a 'warning' from the Region 5 Executive Committee. The undue stress on all communities and participating schools could have and should have been avoided. Ketchikan High School’s failure to follow the plans as set forth by the Region 5 Board of Directors created a situation that put both the Region and participating schools in an unsafe and unnecessary situation. These actions may jeopardize other schools academic in-person schedules and future activities. This is unacceptable and future violations of Region 5 policies may result in Ketchikan High School being denied membership in Region 5 in the 2021-2022 school year.”

      Ketchikan was given 30 days to respond to the letter but chose to act immediately.

      “The process that we are using moving forward is to make sure that we have a full detailed understanding of what happened, if there were any gaps, that we fill those gaps,” Parrott said. “And that we care about providing that in a way that ensures that all of our students and all of our communities are safe and can have those opportunities. I can’t express that enough. I am speaking on behalf of the other individuals in the district as well. That is a consensus feeling that we generally do care and that we are working hard to be able to put that into action.”

      Ketchikan High School has been closed through this week to allow additional quarantining and testing to occur, according to Parrott, and drive-thru testing was available from 8 a.m. to noon on Friday, open to all district students, staff and family and household members.

      The Juneau-Douglas boys soccer team canceled their midweek trip to Ketchikan due to the coronavirus cases there. That trip had been rescheduled from an earlier cancelation by Juneau after concerns of Ketchikan opponents not wearing masks. The Ketchikan track team was unable to travel to the Juneau Capital City Invitational this weekend due to the Kayhi outbreak and Thunder Mountain baseball and Juneau-Douglas softball also had to cancel their trips to Ketchikan this weekend.

      This is the third week in a row that communities outside Ketchikan have been affected by the outbreak at the wrestling venue.

      Ketchikan is scheduled to host the 4A Region V wrestling championships next week.

      Parrott said she is still getting up to speed since recently being appointed acting superintendent so would have to “phone a friend or several friends for an answer on that…”

      The chance for teams to reschedule games and events or restart seasons is now approaching an almost insurmountable time crunch as graduations approach, seasons end and school years come to close.

      “I really can’t speak to that,” Parrott said. “I would probably have to pull in other team members to intelligently speak to that. But I guess what I can say is the priority right now is safety. The priority right now is making sure that everyone is safe and of course we want to provide as many opportunities as we possibly can for our students. It has been a really rough year, everyone is exhausted, everyone is holding on to that little bit of normalcy that we get from our kids being able to play sports, and to be able to go to those events and to be able to participate in our community. To be together. But really what we have to prioritize is safety and doing what we need to do to get through this period of time and hopefully continue having our community be vaccinated and continuing to take the precautions that we know are protective for each other.”

      Parrott said the school district is getting support from Ketchikan’s local public health and emergency operations center and from state officials.

      A Wednesday emergency school board meeting between the Ketchikan school district and the EOC featured Dr. Elizabeth Ohlsen with Alaska’s Division of Public Health, Dr. Coleman Cutchins with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, Ketchikan Gateway Borough and City of Ketchikan emergency manager and fire chief Abner Hoage and local Ketchikan public health officials.

       “We are being advised all along the way about every single decision we are making by a team of experts,” Parrott said. “We are definitely not doing any decision making in a bubble outside of expert advice.”

      Ketchikan is doing school operations at a medium risk level. The EOC has the community risk level at high, which limits the number of people in outdoor gatherings to 30.

      The Ketchikan Daily News reported that the Ketchikan Little League stopped its game schedule through the weekend.

      Parrott said she would not know if school will reopen full time next week but risk level evaluations are ongoing.

      “We have a Smart Start plan that has different levels of risk,” she said. “Operationally there are models and mitigation plans built into each one of those risk levels that we kind of pivot to under different levels of risk.”

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