Kodiak schools will return in person on Monday. Classes have been online since Nov. 19, when school district leadership decided to close buildings to students following a flurry of positive COVID-19 cases in students and teachers.
Now, with positive cases declining in Kodiak, school will be in person once again.
“School intends to open in-person on Jan. 11 and that is celebratory,” Kodiak Emergency Operations Center Director Mike Tvenge said during a weekly update on Thursday.
“This community has made good headway lately in controlling this nasty virus.”
Heading into in-person school this time around, the district has made a number of changes to its protocols, all aimed at keeping schools in person for as long as possible.
From now on, all 430 or so staff will get tested every two weeks, half each week.
“We’re working with KANA to make that happen, and that improves our safety and our ability to monitor our school,” Superintendent Larry LeDoux said.
One of the issues that caused schools to close last time was the overwhelming number of close contacts that each positive case would generate.
Close contacts have to quarantine for seven days and then get a negative test on day six or later, plus show no symptoms, to return to school on day eight. Or they can quarantine for 10 days and return on day 11 if they don’t have symptoms.
But they need to be told they are a close contact first. Six positive cases across the district in mid-November generated hundreds of close contacts, including 149 in the high school and 110 in the middle school.
Staff, mostly school nurses, had to call every single one. With more cases, that task became overwhelming.
The district has hired a part-time nurse to fill in and help with doing that contact tracing. That, plus more practice and better information sharing with public health, will hopefully make contact tracing easier and faster, LeDoux said.
Last fall, a positive case in a school would close that building down for 24 hours to conduct contact tracing and to clean it from top to bottom. Now, LeDoux said the district will be able to both contact trace and clean without closing the school’s doors.
“The closing the building for a positive case, we don’t have to do that anymore as long as we can complete the contact tracing,” he said.
“We thought it would take that long to do contact tracing, and it doesn’t. We’ve refined that, and that will make fewer disruptions in the school day.”
Staffing was an issue too. Any teacher who feels any symptom has to stay home, along with any of those who were close contacts.
When schools closed down, there were 16 positions that couldn’t be filled by substitutes, prompting principals or aides to step in, which pulled them from other duties. LeDoux said that the district has a few more substitutes heading into this semester, but it remains a need.
The school district has also launched its own virus tracking dashboard. Like the EOC-run dashboard, it shows the number of active cases, manner of transmission, hospitalizations and other general information.
Once classes start, the school’s dashboard will also have school-specific information, like cases within schools and the number of available substitutes.
“We put that up there so our parents and staff can know exactly what’s going on, at least as far as we know. It’s the same information that we have,” LeDoux said.
Teachers and other staff are in line to get the vaccine sooner rather than later. Alaskans 65 and older can get the COVID-19 vaccine starting Jan. 11. Those people are considered to be in Tier 1 of Phase 1b.
Teachers and school support staff are among the essential workers who can start getting the jab in Tier 2 as long as they are 50 or older. In Tier 3, any teacher with two or more underlying health conditions can get vaccinated. Tier 4 includes any teacher who didn’t get vaccinated in the other tiers.
Ledoux said he hoped that the state would allow the district to administer the vaccine to teachers rather than having them sign up for appointments themselves, and possibly do a large vaccination event. A survey will soon be going out to all staff asking if they want to get vaccinated.
“It would be our intention to do mass vaccination in our schools,” LeDoux said.
“If they won’t let us do that, then we will be following the normal channels.”