Families with children in the Kodiak Island Borough School District may have an alternative to having students quarantining at home in the event of receiving a COVID close contact notification.
The school district rolled out a new option Tuesday night labeled Test to Stay. Available for students whose parents provide the district with a consent form, it would keep students in the classroom if they were a close contact at school.
In a letter to parents and families, Superintendent Larry LeDoux said the new option is designed “to maximize staff and students’ ability to attend school.”
“This is designed to minimize the number of days individuals must be out of school due to quarantine for being a school-based close contact,” LeDoux said in his letter. “This program will allow staff and students to complete a multiple day testing routine so that classroom time and participation in activities is uninterrupted.”
The option is available to:
Individuals who are determined to be close contacts in the school setting and who have not tested positive in the past 90 days.
Individuals who are not experiencing any symptoms of COVID.
Individuals who are able to swab their own noses for testing.
Students and staff who are considered close contacts outside of school aren’t eligible to select the Test to Stay option.
The district already has a detailed set of COVID testing protocols for students and staff, including the BINAXNow rapid test kit used by staff and students when traveling and for use in its volunteer asymptomatic student test program.
Close contact quarantine options prior to Test to Stay were dependent on vaccination status.
Asymptomatic non-vaccinated individuals had the choice of either quarantining for 10 complete days and returning if they showed no symptoms or quarantining for seven days, getting a second test on the sixth day and returning on day eight if the results were negative. Vaccinated close contacts who showed no signs could remain in school, monitor symptoms and get tested after the fifth day, but strictly adhere to indoor mask policies.
The district’s policy for unvaccinated close contact individuals who showed symptoms are strongly recommended to self-isolate and get tested. If results are negative, they would remain home until symptoms are improved or complete one of the two quarantine options.
Anyone who tests positive — regardless of vaccination status — would need to remain self-isolated for at least 10 days from the date of the test result and return only after an individual has been fever-free for 24 hours without the use of medication.
“We already do hundreds of tests a week,” LeDoux said.
LeDoux first mentioned the new testing parameter at Monday’s Board of Education regular meeting, after 40 people attended and several spoke up in protest of the school district’s mask mandates and COVID protocols.
“We’ve been working closely with the Alaska Department of Health and our own medical advisory committee to implement this program to reduce the number of children who will go home,” LeDoux said Monday night. “This will affect kids who are identified as school-based close contacts.”
He said the district’s contact tracing teams will determine who have been school-based close contacts and notify families accordingly.
“Sometimes those numbers can be extraordinarily large, and it sends a lot of kids home,” LeDoux said. “We don’t want to send kids home, so we put together this program.”
LeDoux said that most close contacts among students and staff still occur outside school.
Students would go through a series of tests over a seven-day period, which includes one molecular test and two or three antigen-based (or rapid result) tests. Two antigen home-test kits are optional to monitor results over the weekend.
“The Test to Stay option is personnel intensive and will take a lot of time, but we’ve organized our staff to manage it because we think it will keep kids in school,” LeDoux said. “That is the primary concern.”
According to LeDoux, students whose parents consent to take the Test to Stay option will need to check in with school district staff first thing in the morning. Staff will do a symptom review and facilitate COVID testing if indicated that day. Asymptomatic students that test negative will be cleared to proceed to class.
“This will reduce our close-contact student absences by about 95%,” LeDoux said.
He said the option has proven a popular development.
“A number of superintendents have called and requested our program because they want to follow it for the same reason we want to,” LeDoux said.
The new test option comes along with other changes to the school’s mask mandate. Student athletes on basketball, wrestling and hockey teams will not be required to wear masks while actively playing. However, they will remain mandatory while athletes are “on the bench,” LeDoux said.
Previously, student athletes involved in indoor sports such as wrestling or volleyball were required to wear masks at all times, including during off-island competitions regardless of policies at other school districts around the state.
LeDoux said the district continues to track COVID data and regularly consults both the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services and the local medical advisory board.
While the current number of positive cases has trended down over the past few weeks from the recent surge that began in July, LeDoux said the current advisory recommendations remain to require masks in schools.
The district had originally intended to begin the school year by allowing masks to be optional for secondary school students, who were the only youth eligible at the time to receive the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.
However, when COVID-19 numbers began to increase again locally and at the state and national level, the district changed course and implemented a universal mask mandate.
“I’m hoping that this Test to Stay option will be the beginning of ultimately making masks voluntary in our schools,” LeDoux said. “But I don’t know that yet because I don’t know where this pandemic is going.”