When kids go back to school Tuesday, it will be amid a spike in COVID-19 cases, stagnant vaccination rates and meticulous efforts by Kenai Peninsula Borough School District staff to mitigate the virus’ spread without requiring face masks in classrooms.
The district unveiled its mitigation plan for the 2021-2022 school year last month and was making updates as recently as Wednesday. The plan addresses everything from testing, to athletics, to contact tracing, to physical distancing.
When applied to students, however, the protocols are not one-size-fits-all and will largely come down to whether or not that student has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Someone is considered fully vaccinated 14 days after the second dose of the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine or the Moderna vaccine. Someone is considered fully vaccinated 14 days after receiving their single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
“There’s different protocols based on if somebody is fully vaccinated,” KPBSD Communications Director Pegge Erkeneff said Friday.
‘Layers’ of mitigation
KPBSD Superintendent Clayton Holland said Friday that masking is only one of many mitigation “layers” the district considered in creating their plan. The district is not requiring masks, but they’ve beefed up other protocols and are strongly recommending mask-wearing among students and staff while indoors.
“I hope people will wear a mask,” Holland said. “It’s their choice, but I think the thing I want everyone else to know is that we have a lot of other layers.”
Those include, among other things, social distancing to the extent possible between students, bipolar ionization disinfection of air through buildings’ HVAC systems and a continuation of hygiene etiquette, such as frequent hand-washing.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend the implementation of layered prevention strategies in K-12 schools, with evidence suggesting that schools that strictly implement prevention strategies have been able to safely open for in-person learning.
When a student tests positive for COVID-19
When a student tests positive for COVID-19, that student will not be allowed to return to school until at least 10 days after the onset of their COVID-19 symptoms or after the date the student tested positive. To return to school, students must also be symptom-free for 24 hours without medication and be cleared by public health.
When students or staff test positive for COVID-19, that person’s close contacts are defined as people who were within 6 feet of the person who tested positive for more than 15 cumulative minutes over a 24-hour period. That means, entire classrooms will not be asked to quarantine just because someone in the classroom tests positive for COVID-19. Only that person’s close contacts need to quarantine.
There’s a difference between a close contact and secondary contact — also known as a contact of a close contact. A person who lives with someone identified as a close contact does not need to change anything about their daily routine, but should monitor for symptoms.
That applies to students who are identified as a close contact of someone who tests positive. The other people in that student’s household would be secondary close contacts, and would not need to change their daily routines. Parents who have students at more than one school can continue to send their other kids to school if they are secondary contacts.
The school district is using quarantine guidelines issued by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.
Unvaccinated, asymptomatic close contacts of someone who is COVID-positive must immediately quarantine. They can return to school one to two weeks after exposure once cleared by public health.
Unvaccinated, symptomatic close contacts of someone who is COVID-positive must immediately isolate. If that person tests positive, they must keep isolating. If they test negative, they must stay home while symptomatic or until finished with seven- to 14-day quarantine, whichever is longer, then talk to a health care provider and consider testing again before returning to school.
Vaccinated, asymptomatic close contacts of someone who is COVID-positive do not need to quarantine. They must get tested within three to five days of exposure, must wear a mask for 14 days and should carefully monitor for symptoms over the next two weeks.
Vaccinated, symptomatic close contacts of someone who is COVID-positive must get tested and immediately isolate. If that person tests positive, they must keep isolating. If they test negative, they must stay home while symptomatic, then talk to a health care provider and consider testing again before returning to school.
Regardless of vaccination status, symptomatic individuals with no known contact should immediately get tested and stay home. A positive test means that person must isolate for 10 days. A negative test means that person should stay home while symptomatic, then talk to a health care provider and consider testing again before returning to school.
The CDC distinguishes between quarantine and isolation. Isolation separates sick people with a contagious disease from people who are not sick, while quarantine restricts people who were exposed to a contagious disease to see if they become sick.
Updated guidelines for vaccinated close contacts were issued in response to the highly contagious COVID-19 delta variant, Erkeneff said Friday.
Students will not be tested for COVID-19 without parental consent. If that student participates in voluntary extracurricular activities, including sports, they must participate in weekly antigen testing. If students go to the school nurse office because they do not feel well, the school nurse will call that student’s family to ask if the student can be tested for COVID-19.
If the parent says yes, the student will take an antigen test. If that test is positive, it will be confirmed with a molecular test. If the molecular test is positive, the student will follow isolation protocols.
If the parent does not give consent for their child to be tested for COVID-19, the district will fall back on its “Symptom-Free Schools Protocol.” That protocol says students refusing a test must stay home for at least 10 days after the onset of symptoms. Additionally, the student must report no symptoms within 24 hours of returning to school, with no medication used to reduce a fever.
KPBSD received a grant from the CDC to expand the COVID testing capacity at all 42 district schools. Cue and Abbott ID Now testing devices are available at all schools.
For KPBSD school nurses, contact tracing is nothing new. They were the first in Alaska to participate in an online contact-tracing course to assist with statewide efforts.
Erkeneff said Friday that contact tracing is already underway as the result of in-services and sports. The tracing process begins by going back two days from the first onset of symptoms and identifying close contacts.
Once contact tracing begins, Erkeneff said close contacts are called directly. After close contacts have been notified, a communication is sent by the school principal to families letting them know there have been one or more positive COVID-19 cases in the school and close contacts have been notified.
If a student or teacher tests positive, it is not guaranteed that every other person in the class will be notified that a positive case was reported in the classroom. Only close contacts will be called directly, but everyone in the school will receive the principal’s communication.
Masks are required on school buses and by people visiting or volunteering in schools. Masks are not required for students while inside school buildings but are highly recommended for all students and staff while indoors.
The decision to require masks for visitors and volunteers was made following requests and conversations with district administration, Holland said Friday.
“It’s a layer for the unknown person coming in, or the person who is not part of our regular routine,” Holland said.
Holland said Friday that the district will always defer to local and state authorities with health powers regarding masks. For example, if a municipality institutes a mask mandate for a city, students going to schools in those municipalities would be required to wear masks in school.
As of Friday, Nanwalek School, Port Graham School, Susan B. English School and Tebughna School were all operating with universal masking due to mandates from local health authorities, according to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard.
Teachers are allowed to remind students in their classroom that masks are strongly encouraged.
Symptom-Free Schools Protocol
KPBSD’s Symptom-Free Schools Protocol says that people should stay home and contact their school nurse when they have any signs or symptoms of illness, are taking the first 24 hours of antibiotic treatment or have an undiagnosed, new and untreated rash or skin condition. The protocol applies to students, staff, parents and guardians, volunteers and school visitors.
Regardless of vaccination status, people who test positive for COVID-19 must stay home for 10 days following the onset of symptoms or for 10 days after they tested positive. Students must also be free of symptoms for 24 hours without the assistance of medication to return to school.
Unvaccinated people who are symptomatic but refuse to be tested will be sent home and cannot return to school for at least 10 days following the onset of symptoms. Additionally, all symptoms must be gone without the assistance of medication for at least 24 hours before the student can return.
Unvaccinated people who have COVID-19 symptoms and test negative can return to school — with proof of that negative test — as long as symptoms have been gone for 24 hours with no medication.
Vaccinated people who develop COVID-19 symptoms may be required to take a COVID-19 test in order to attend school.
Holland said Friday that keeping kids home if they’re sick will fall to parental responsibility.
“If a kid is not feeling well, or if you at home are not feeling well, you need to be aware of that and keep your kid at home and consider getting tested,” Holland said. “But don’t send your child to school sick.”
Protocols are slightly different for students who play on school sports teams.
Student-athletes will be monitored for COVID-19 symptoms daily and will be tested for COVID-19 on Mondays via antigen testing, which is generally used for COVID-19 screening. Additional testing will occur for travel depending on the destination.
If student-athletes test positive for COVID-19, they will be out of sports for a minimum of 17 days. That is counting a mandatory 10-day quarantine period and a mandatory seven-day “Return to Play” procedure, which outlines a gradual buildup to regular athletic activities.
The protocols for student-athletes who are identified as close contacts of someone who tests positive for COVID-19 will depend on whether or not the student-athlete is vaccinated.
If vaccinated student-athletes are identified as close contacts, they must immediately begin wearing a face covering and take a COVID-19 test three to five days after exposure. If that test is negative, the student-athlete must continue to wear a face mask for 14 days, but does not need to quarantine and will be allowed to continue conditioning and play certain sports.
If unvaccinated student-athletes are identified as close contacts, they follow the same protocols as unvaccinated close contact students in a classroom setting. The student-athlete must immediately quarantine, but will have the option to test out of quarantine on day seven if they have been asymptomatic since exposure.
Regardless of vaccination status, if a student-athlete identified as a close contact tests positive for COVID-19, that student-athlete will be out of sports for a minimum of 17 days per the 10-day required isolation period and seven-day Return to Play guidelines.
Coaches are being instructed to keep student-athletes in “pods” with other athletes who play in their same position on a sports team. Those pods will be observed both in locker rooms and during games.
Mitigation protocols will also be observed during sporting events. A 12-foot buffer will be maintained between spectators and athletes at play.
Families can direct further questions about COVID-19 to their school nurse. More information about the district’s COVID-19 mitigation protocols can be found on the district’s website at covid19.kpbsd.org.
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at firstname.lastname@example.org.