A positive case of COVID-19 was identified at Soldotna High School on Tuesday, prompting contact tracing and quarantines for those determined to be in close contact with the person who tested positive.
Principal Tony Graham sent an email to all parents and staff Tuesday night notifying them that a “student or staff member” at the school had tested positive for COVID-19, but could not specify further due to privacy laws.
“In the scenario laid out in the district protocol, the suggestion is to contact only those in direct close contact (with the positive case), but I am contacting all of our community as to not have any sense of hiding anything from our families,” Graham said in the email. “We will be here at school tomorrow ready to educate our students. I am confident that everything that can be done is being done to keep our school safe.”
Pegge Erkeneff, communications director for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, confirmed the news Wednesday, saying that the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District learned of the case on Tuesday and immediately began the contact-tracing process with Alaska’s Division of Public Health.
Erkeneff did not say how many close contacts had been identified during the contact tracing investigation, but did say that everyone determined to be a close contact has been notified and is required to quarantine for 14 days. Those people are also encouraged to get tested for COVID-19 during their quarantine, but not required.
Because only one case has been identified, Erkeneff said that the protocols for Soldotna High School and the district at-large have not changed.
“For one positive case in a school, we were able to do all the contact tracing effectively and immediately, and anybody that was a close contact was contacted directly, and then the principal sent out a general notice,” Erkeneff said. “So at this time, there’s no risk level change in the school.”
Students, parents and faculty have been encouraged to contact the district’s nursing supervisor, Iris Wertz, to confidentially report a positive COVID-19 case, which Erkeneff said is exactly what happened in this instance.
“We’ve asked anybody that tests positive to call the Nurse Iris or even the school nurse or the principal, so that way we can know immediately and not wait to learn and be able to contact trace,” Erkeneff said. “So that happened, and it was swift and well done.”
Erkeneff noted that, while this is the first positive COVID-19 case identified at a school in the district, there have already been instances of students or faculty being close contacts with cases that were identified outside the school. In those situations, Erkeneff said, the close contacts are required to quarantine for 14 days.
“The other thing we’ve asked people to do, if they are identified as a close contact, is to get a COVID test,” Erkeneff said. “Because we know that if they get a COVID test that day, and it comes back negative, then we don’t have to go back in time if they later become sick. We know that the last time they were in school they were negative, so there’s no chance that they have exposed anybody in the school.”
Soldotna High School’s volleyball and football teams are scheduled to play against Kenai Central High School this weekend. Soldotna’s Activities Director Kyle McFall said on Wednesday that the mitigation plans for these events have not been affected or changed by the positive case.
“We’ve changed the verbiage a little bit to emphasize that people have to be wearing masks if they’re walking around the stands, but other than that the plan is the same as it has been,” McFall said.
Erkeneff said that the case is a reminder that the disease is still in the community, despite the relatively low number of new cases that the Kenai Peninsula has seen in recent weeks. On Tuesday, the state reported five new Kenai Peninsula cases, among residents in Soldotna, Kenai and Sterling.
“Even though we’ve been at low risk on the peninsula, we are living in a pandemic, and it’s possible for people to get very sick and for it to spread, because it’s very contagious,” Erkeneff said. “So we’re really happy with how people are following our plans at school, and we need them to keep doing that at home and in the community as well, to keep our risk levels low and our schools open.”
Another Alaska school — Butte Elementary in Palmer — also identified a positive COVID-19 case on Tuesday, prompting a short-term building closure at the school until contact tracing could be completed, according to a post on the school’s Facebook page by Principal Joshua Rockey.