Kodiak Island Borough School District will keep its doors open as local COVID case counts continue to decline, according to a recent report from Larry LeDoux.
The superintendent provided the update to the Board of Education during its Monday work session, noting that while it’s been a challenge during the recent surge, the district staff, school site staff and contact tracing teams have done excellent work.
“We are maintaining a full spate of activities and education is ongoing,” LeDoux said. “That is because of an incredible amount of community support, staff support and great parents and students who are working to keep our schools open in light of the pandemic.”
LeDoux said the advice of the medical advisory board is to keep schools open.
“Kids are safer at school,” he said. “If you have a lot of contagion in the community, it doesn’t do any good to let them loose. The thing is to check on them, take care of them and most importantly educate them.”
The medical advisory board is made up of doctors from Providence Kodiak Island Medical Center, Kodiak Area Native Association, Kodiak Community Health Clinic, the Kodiak Emergency Operations Center, the U.S. Coast Guard, the public health department, and school district officials.
Still, LeDoux said that keeping schools open remains an emotionally sensitive topic for staff.
“Teachers go to school not knowing what they will find out, go home at night waiting for a call that may be a close contact or one of their students might be, or that they might need to do blended learning because some of their kids are close contacts,” LeDoux said.
He said the virus has no predictability, “and that adds stress to our staff, our students and parents.”
Principals and office staff stay late and come in early, he said, because they need to keep on top of COVID information. Some work weekends to handle calls and conduct contact tracing after receiving information from either the state
“Before the pandemic, principals had one full-time job, now they have two full-time jobs,” LeDoux said.
The school district has seen COVID cases spread among staff and students, with the largest occurring at North Star Elementary. Since the start of the school year, North Star alone has reported 46 cases; the district closed down Northstar for two days in September to conduct extensive deep cleaning and contact tracing.
East Elementary has reported 33 cases, Peterson Elementary 19 cases, and Main Elementary 12 cases. The Central Office preschools have reported two cases. Kodiak Middle School has reported 20 cases and Kodiak High School 40 cases among students and staff. The total number of cases in village schools hovered at four cases.
LeDoux stressed the importance behind the numbers.
“Each one of these numbers is a real person that is going through a time that is experiencing sickness and fear of the unknown of what the future brings,” LeDoux said. “These are real cases, real people and I really don’t like distilling them down to a number. This disease hits people person by person.”
LeDoux said the district can confidently say student-to-student transmission caused three elementary classrooms to close down. While the majority of COVID transmission remains outside schools, it is a concern, he said.
LeDoux said that even among various athletic and academic teams, some people have tested positive in asymptomatic screening despite taking all the precautions in the world.
The majority of transmission remains within the family, he said, but requires the district to begin contacting siblings, family members and others who might have been infected or are a close contact.
LeDoux also said there is a difference between a breakout across different grades and within the classroom.
“Seven positive kids spread across different grades is a little scary, but seven cases within the classroom is a little different,” LeDoux said. “When you look at what is going on in schools, we have to look at where the contagion is going before we make decisions.”
LeDoux credited parents keeping sick children home as the main reason why COVID cases remain low in schools. Half the cases reported, he said, do not cause close contacts because they are quarantined at home.
“Parents are doing a good job, generally speaking, but kids don’t always share with their parents that they aren’t feeling well,” LeDoux said. “It’s really important that parents let us know if their kids are symptomatic or if they have it in their family.”
Michelle Odlin, the school district’s head nurse, provided some insight into what her team of school nurses was doing to stave off COVID’s spread in schools.
Odlin said one of the challenges the school district faces is re-quarantining elementary school students who might be a close contact. Elementary grade students aren’t currently eligible to receive the vaccine because the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention haven’t provided emergency authorization status yet.
Odlin said the school district manages a layered quarantine policy for its vaccinated and unvaccinated students and staff. Because primary school students can’t be vaccinated, they often find themselves affected by multiple quarantines.
“Some kids are just unlucky; some kids have no explanation for why they are repeatedly close contacts and it’s hard on them,” Odlin said. However, she said the district’s contact tracing efforts have been effective in keeping infection levels down.
The school district defines close contacts as less than three feet apart when wearing masks, or six feet apart when eating in cafeteria settings.
COVID numbers in Kodiak since the surge have slowly started lowering since the start of October, from more than 200 cases on Oct. 1 to 123 on Tuesday, according to the Kodiak EOC’s latest update.
“The hope is that we’ve been through the worst and the number of quarantines will also slowly decrease in the next few weeks,” Odlin said. However, she said quarantine procedures may never go away unless the CDC revises its guidelines.
ASYMPTOMATIC TESTING CHANGES
Odlin said the school district has changed its standards on how to test for asymptomatic cases based in part on the advice of the medical advisory board.
“The concern we’ve noticed over the last six weeks was that over half of our student athletes that tested positive were fully vaccinated,” Odlin said.
The CDC and the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services both advise that asymptomatic testing should focus on unvaccinated individuals, something Odlin said the district has been following.
The district currently tests all unvaccinated students and staff with rapid test kits prior to off-island travel.
As a result, fully vaccinated students did not have to test prior to traveling. Local doctors are advising a course correction, Odlin said, and will begin testing all student athletes as wrestling, basketball and hockey seasons begin.
In addition, testing could take place “as supplies and personnel allow” as soon as students return to Kodiak from an event.
“There was a concern they were getting it while they were gone,” Odlin said.
LeDoux agreed with testing student athletes on a regular basis to ensure a team’s season isn’t interrupted before they have a chance to participate in a regional or statewide tournament.
“Keeping our students in the negative zone is going to take a lot of effort on students’ and staff’s part and a lot of testing,” LeDoux said. He added that Debbie Rohrer, the district’s activities director, has done excellent work in ensuring that students undergo asymptomatic testing.
‘DECIDE WHAT YOUR
LeDoux said that fully vaccinated students still need to take preventative measures.
“They need to understand that no vaccination is absolutely perfect — the federal government doesn’t say that (it’s perfect) and the companies don’t say that,” LeDoux said. “I think one of the things we need to share with kids when they get vaccinated is that they can’t do whatever they want and be COVID free.”
To that extent, Odlin said the high school nurse has taken extra initiatives to speak with athletes.
“One of our nurses has actually taken the initiative to go to the sports teams and talk to them,” Odlin said. The conversations have included the Kodiak High School cross country, football, volleyball and swimming teams.
She said by simply telling student athletes at the beginning of the season “to pick their priorities,” and “what you do out of school” will make a difference.
“We’ve actually had discussions with student athletes and asked them what their priorities are right now,” Odlin said. “If you really care about traveling with your team, then going to this indoor gathering or party is a very risky choice.”