Image via Kenai Peninsula Borough School District

Image via Kenai Peninsula Borough School District

What happens if there is a COVID-19 case in the schools?

District has plans to keep COVID-19 out of schools, but also plans for if COVID-19 makes it into schools

What happens if there is a COVID-19 case in a school?

That’s one of the questions the school district must grapple with as Kenai Peninsula students head back into the classrooms.

The district has spent the summer planning to keep cases from occurring in schools, but also planning what to do in the event there is a positive case, Pegge Erkeneff, director of communications, community and government relations for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, said.

Risk levels

Erkeneff said a big part of the plan is the risk levels. The levels are based on how many cases per 100,000 people there are in a community, averaged over 14 days.

When a community reaches too many cases in a 14-day period that is a major factor in whether or not the school district will close the community’s schools to on-site learning.

For example, the southern peninsula, eastern peninsula and remote communities are at low-risk level, and now holding in-person classes.

On the central peninsula, where the risk level is high, schools are closed to most on-site learning until at least Sept. 8. Pre-K, kindergarten and special education students, however, are attending school.

“We’re living in a global pandemic,” Erkeneff said. “We’ve created as much as we can so schools can be as safe as they can. This virus also is impressively contagious.”

Erkeneff said schools following the proper procedures in communities at low and medium risk should be relatively safe. When schools are in session in a high-risk community, that’s when Erkeneff said things get risky.

Symptom-free schools

In addition to using risk levels to mitigate risk, the district also has put a protocol for symptom-free schools in place.

On its website and in communications to parents and guardians, the district has released a laundry list of symptoms that students, staff, volunteers and visitors should stay away from schools when experiencing. Parents or guardians also are being asked to take a child’s temperature every day.

Erkeneff said this is not the year to power through symptoms. The idea is to keep not only COVID-19 out of the schools, but the flu and colds as well.

“Everybody has the option to 100% remote learn,” Erkeneff said. “If somebody is sick, the child can still stay at home and learn. In past years, if somebody stayed home they had to make that work up.”

Some in school may experience symptoms on the list due to another medical condition, such as allergies. A note from a medical provider allows those students to remain in school, Erkeneff said.

If a student is experiencing symptoms unrelated to a medical condition, Erkeneff said the student will be sent to the school nurse for evaluation. That evaluation will determine whether a parent or guardian needs to be called.

Erkeneff also said the district can’t administer a COVID-19 test. That is up to parents or guardians.

On its website and in communications to parents and guardians, the district also has distributed protocols for when people who have experienced cold or flu symptoms, COVID-19-like symptoms or COVID-19 can return to school.

Erkeneff said the school district is fully aware symptom-free schools are not a catch-all for COVID-19. She said there can be asymptomatic spread or spread two or three days before the onset of symptoms.

Cohorts

In addition to canceled, one of the biggest buzzwords during the new coronavirus pandemic has been cohorts. It means groups.

Specifically, administrators of each of the peninsula’s schools have designed the flow of their schools so students stay in a group and a specific area as much as possible.

“We’ve all been asked in life to limit social circles,” Karl Kircher, principal of Mountain View Elementary, said after the first day of school Monday. “One of the main protections at school is kids limiting their social circles.

“Kids will just be with kids in their classroom when they’re eating lunch or at recess.”

By limiting the number of contacts between those in the school, administrators limit the potential for the virus to spread and make contact tracing easier in the event of a positive case.

As students progress in grades, cohorts become more difficult. The district requires cloth face coverings for staff, volunteers, visitors and students in grades three through 12.

Pre-K through second grade students don’t need to wear a mask with their cohort, but do have to wear a mask on the bus, when mixing with grades three and higher, or in common areas with other cohorts or grades.

The district also has stepped up sanitizing to limit the spread of the new coronavirus.

So what happens when there is a COVID-19 case in school?

Despite all the precautions in place, Erkeneff said the district has plans in place for what happens in the event of a COVID-19 case in school.

If there is a COVID-19 case, Erkeneff said the school district will not identify the person testing positive due to privacy laws. People testing positive have the option to identify themselves.

Public health and the school nurses will handle the contact tracing, determining who in the school could have been exposed to the virus. Those people will be contacted and told to quarantine. Those exposed, or their parents or guardians, get to decide if they are tested for COVID-19.

“The best thing, if we have a positive case, is to have kindness and compassion,” Erkeneff said. “Everybody is going to be scared. It’s going to be a challenging time for that person and everybody else.

“People need to trust that public health or the school nurse will tell them if they need to quarantine. We won’t release names. That won’t come from the school district.”

The quicker, the better

Erkeneff said time is of the essence when a COVID-19 case is even suspected.

“If a child’s at home and suddenly gets symptoms and gets a test, parents should call the school nurse or the principal,” Erkeneff said. “Then they can already look at logging when the child has been with other children in the cohort or with staff.”

Time also is important if the test comes up positive.

“There’s no requirement they call the school, but we’re asking they do it for the safety of everybody involved,” Erkeneff said. “The fastest way to get the safest measures into place is to contact the nursing supervisor or the school nurse, then we work in confidence with public health.”

Erkeneff said the district has given a form to parents and guardians allowing public health to directly contact Iris Wertz, KPBSD nursing supervisor, with news of a positive case. Erkeneff said 93% of students have returned the form and more are still coming in.

Erkeneff said valuable time can be lost in the process of the positive case going to public health, then public health notifying Wertz. That’s why Erkeneff said it’s best for parents or guardians to keep the school apprised of a test, then notify the school immediately of results of that test.

“The sooner we know, the more we can start contact tracing who was in the building, who has been exposed, then being asking people to quarantine,” Erkeneff said.

Erkeneff said the time it takes tests to come back also is important. According to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Coronavirus Response Hub, the 14-day average testing turnaround time at state public health laboratories is currently 2.7 days.

The matrix

In addition to working with Wertz, public health, school nurses, the district medical advisory team and administrators, the district also has put a matrix in place to spell out what happens in a number of scenarios in the event of a positive test.

“It gives us a good framework. What if this happens? This is the response and this is the reason we’re doing it,” Erkeneff said.

The matrix has five different scenarios for a positive COVID-19 case in schools. The matrix spells out the response in each of those scenarios and the reason for the response.

An example is a positive case having little or no time in a school, with the result being no building closure and communication indicating there is no risk.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is more than one case in multiple schools in a one- to three-day period of time where transmission in a school is possible or suspected. Depending on what contact tracing shows, the response here can be as severe as triggering 100% remote learning.

The matrix is available on the district’s website.

“The biggest thing is trusting the matrix and working with the health advisory group and public health,” Erkeneff said. “The district is not doing this on its own.”

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