Optional mask policy at local schools could change

Kodiak High School summer woods construction teacher Malcolm Bennett observes students Kyla Quiambao and Mari Mangrobang during a project on June 17. The school district required masks during the summer session for all grade levels, but plans to make face masks optional for grades 6-12 in the upcoming school year — if community transmission in Kodiak remains low. If not, the school district will continue with a universal mask policy, according to Superintendent Larry LeDoux.

The Kodiak Island Borough School District has two COVID-19 precautionary plans in place for the upcoming academic year, Superintendent Larry LeDoux said at Monday’s board of education meeting.

The option recommended by district staff — in consultation with its medical advisory board — would require all students from pre-kindergarten to fifth grade to continue wearing masks. Masks for middle and high school students would be optional, though highly recommended for those not fully vaccinated. 

Students in elementary school would require masks because there has been no emergency authorized vaccine for children under 12 years of age.

LeDoux said the optional mask requirement can change depending on whether COVID-19 case rates continue to rise in Kodiak, and on how the virus spreads.

“It’s very important to let people know that our plan can change in one day,” LeDoux said. “We are ready to do that. Our kids are, our teachers are and our community is — they may not like it, but they know it’s important.”

If community spread increases, universal masking requirements will stay in effect for teachers and students at all grade levels.

“Like I said at the beginning of last school year, our number-one concern is to keep our students and staff as safe as we can,” LeDoux said, “but always keeping in mind the best interests, including our need to educate them and provide maximum opportunities for that.”

He said that under the current proposed plan, optional masks for secondary students would only be a recommendation.

“The CDC said anyone who is not fully vaccinated should wear masks, but how do we manage that, how do we know who is vaccinated?” LeDoux said. “We would impose a rule, but we could not adjudicate or manage it. That means ‘cops and robbers’ because kids do not respect the rules that cannot be enforced.”

The school district has consulted regularly with its advisory board and with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services to put the plan together. But LeDoux noted that the situation remains fluid.

“We are deeply concerned with the dramatic increases of the alpha variant and the delta variant nationally, with the number of children across the country at summer camps that are now becoming infected with this variant,” LeDoux said.

He added that concern remains high about the recent spike in COVID-19 cases in Anchorage, which parallels national trends.

In Kodiak Island Borough alone, the state reported 15 cases between July 11 and 17. But the Kodiak Island Emergency Operations Center has been unable to release an update due to lack of data from public health officials until after contact tracing has been completed.

“It’s important to know that it’s just data,” LeDoux said. “Data does not mean anything — it’s about the same as zeroes and ones in digital processing, it’s not information. For example, are those 15 cases community spread, travel or from two families? We don’t know that yet.”

LeDoux told the board that information will drive the school district’s final decision, but found the 15-case spike in just one week concerning. There was also concern about whether the delta variant of the virus will reach Kodiak.

The delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, was first identified in India and has rapidly spread across the globe.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the variant accounts for 83% of new infections in the U.S. It spreads 50% more than the alpha variant, which itself was more contagious than the original strand that kicked off the pandemic.

An article in Yale Medicine Journal noted that the delta variant commonly passes from one person to maybe 3.5 or 4 other people, compared to the original strain’s contamination of 2.5 other people. 

“During our medical review, numerous physicians said that if the delta variant hits Kodiak, it will sweep through the unvaccinated community in our community,” LeDoux said. 

He noted that those who are fully vaccinated — who had received two doses and took the requisite three weeks for the vaccine to take full effect — are generally resistant to the delta variant.

LeDoux said he is also concerned about the low level of the vaccinated population between ages 12 and 16, which hovers at 28%, according to DHSS. However, he added that he has to respect the parents’ and students' decisions.

“I would like to have as many people vaccinated as possible for a variety of reasons,” LeDoux said. “At the same time, I have to respect parents’ decision-making on their kids. While I support vaccination because it helps keep us open, I still respect parents' decisions.”

He added that he would not be surprised to see a federal-level mandate coming out in the near future. So far, any federal mandate has been limited to mask requirements on school buses; any public transportation requires masks under current CDC guidelines.

The CDC recently issued an updated advisory noting that fully vaccinated students and teachers do not have to wear masks, while students in the elementary school over 2 years old still require them, as do teachers. 

Additionally, the CDC recommends what has become boilerplate — isolating students and teachers who might show symptoms of the virus, testing them if they are symptomatic, staying home if someone appears to be sick. The CDC also reduced the level of social distancing between students from 6 feet to 3 feet.

Another step the district will take involves a $424,905 grant from DHSS to assist in symptomatic and asymptomatic screening and testing to reopen and keep schools operating safely.

“If you recall last year, we tested all of our activity travel before they traveled, and we will continue to do that,” LeDoux said.

The district will also put together a plan to conduct asymptomatic testing on unvaccinated students.

“We are surveying parents of unvaccinated students to see if they are interested in an asymptomatic program where we screen 250 students a week for COVID-19,” LeDoux said.

Testing in schools could take the form of one grade level spread out among the four elementary schools.

To help facilitate in-school/in-person testing, the school district will receive the appropriate machines and materials, LeDoux said.

There are also capabilities to send home-testing kits to parents, which take 15 minutes for results, and then can input results into a smartphone or tablet app.

LeDoux added that local clinics, including Kodiak Area Native Association and Kodiak Community Health Center, have done excellent jobs in their own testing capabilities. 

He said if the school district continues with the current culture — proper wearing of masks for unvaccinated students, use of air filters in class, classroom facility cleanings — close-contact scenarios will not be as extensive. 

The district also maintains a stockpile of at least 150,000 masks, sanitizers and air filters and ability to make its own cleaner and sanitizers.

“If kids are fully masked and not within 3 feet of each other for more than 15 minutes, they’re not in close contact,” LeDoux said. “That means if we have a positive case at an elementary school, only those kids who are likely buddies or working with at a desk for more than 15 minutes will be a close contact.”

LeDoux said it used to be that if a positive case happened, the entire class would be quarantined. New rules and procedures have changed that.

“We will be able to maintain continuity of instruction because we are wearing masks,” he said.

But he stressed that it will depend on a number of factors, such as seating charts to better identify students in close contact. When social events such as dancing begin again, masks will likely be required because of the close proximity.

Students and staff who travel outside of Alaska and return will be tested upon arrival and be required to wear a mask for five days before being tested again.

“We believe we have enough experience to manage this and the funds for testing, and have a head nurse who works with the Department of Health,” LeDoux said. “We have a solid medical advisory committee to the point we have approval of every step not to require masks.”

But he stressed the importance of possibly not being able to keep the commitment.

“The public should not throw away their masks because it may be before school starts that you will be masked up completely,” LeDoux said. “It may be that we can push forward with the current agenda with the mitigation of Kodiak going down. … It depends on the contagion in our community.

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