Sanitization equipment is seen inside of a classroom at Kenai Middle School on Friday, Jan. 8, 2021, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Sanitization equipment is seen inside of a classroom at Kenai Middle School on Friday, Jan. 8, 2021, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

District nixes contact tracing for schools with universal masking

When a school moves to universal masking, nurse and staff time is “no longer dedicated” to contact tracing

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is no longer conducting COVID-19 contact tracing at schools where universal masking is in place, per updates to the district’s mitigation plan announced last month. Additionally, staff and students who test positive for and showed symptoms of COVID-19 are now allowed to return to school or work as early as five days after testing positive, as long as symptoms are resolved for at least 24 hours without the help of medication.

KPBSD Communications Director Pegge Erkeneff said Thursday the decision to discontinue contact tracing in schools where universal masking is observed was due in part to a spike in cases that district nurses and staff “could not keep up with” in mid-January. A review of the number of close contact students who later tested positive, as well as the time it takes for school staff to contact trace also factored into the decision, Erkeneff said.

When a school moves to universal masking, Erkeneff said, nurse and staff time is “no longer dedicated” to contact tracing. More generally, Erkeneff said the trend of discontinuing contact tracing is something that KPBSD leadership is monitoring.

“In mid-January with the rise in positive COVID-19 cases, our staff could not keep up with contact tracing,” Erkeneff said via email.

Erkeneff confirmed that the discontinuation of contact tracing at schools where universal masking is in place will skew close contact data reflected on the district’s COVID-19 dashboard by making those numbers lower. She said the dashboard will still reflect data from individuals who self-report and in schools where contact tracing still occurs.

As of Thursday, at least 13 of KPBSD’s 42 schools — representing about 2,800 district students and staff — were operating with universal masking. In determining whether a school moves in or out of universal indoor masking, KPBSD uses criteria outlined in the district’s COVID-19 mitigation plan.

A “conversation” between district administrators and school site administrators is triggered when a school district meets four out of five criteria outlined in the plan. Factors considered include a school community positivity rate of 3% or higher, a student absenteeism rate of 25% or higher, local and regional hospital and ICU capacity, a community’s COVID-19 case count per 100,000 people and the impact of a school’s staff absenteeism rate.

Additionally, under the changes announced last month KPBSD staff and students who test positive for and showed symptoms of COVID-19 are now allowed to return to school or work as early as five days after testing positive. That is as long as symptoms are resolved for at least 24 hours without the help of medication.

Under the previous iteration of the district’s policy, which was announced on Jan. 11, COVID-positive students and staff could return to school or work five days after testing positive, but only if they were asymptomatic.

Schools will still follow the district’s Symptom Free Protocol as well as enforce layered COVID-19 mitigation strategies. Students and staff are also encouraged to take advantage of testing resources made available through the district, such as through free at-home test kits, testing at school and community partner testing.

According to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard, which went live last August, more than 1,650 positive COVID-19 test results have been reported to the district from students and more than 350 positive results from staff. KPBSD’s COVID-19 dashboard can be viewed at covid19.kpbsd.org/dashboard.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

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