Correction: This story has been changed to note that six people tested positive for COVID-19 at Paul Banks Elementary School.
Kenai Peninsula public schools have seen 130 COVID-positive cases from Aug. 23-30, with an additional 930 students or staff identified as close contacts. Locally, several Homer schools also have seen cases. In Seward, an increase in cases prompted schools there to go to universal, mandatory masking.
The latest report comes as the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District launches a new feature on its COVID-19 dashboard that will track COVID-19 cases by school. That additional set of information should go live later this week, said KPBSD Communications Director Pegge Erkeneff on Monday.
The reports of COVID-19 cases came about when the district started its new internal reporting system, Erkeneff said. They are either cases noticed in school, as when a student visits the school nurse with symptoms and gets a rapid test, or that have been reported to the nurse or administrator by parent.
At Paul Banks Elementary School, six people were reported positive with COVID-19 since Aug. 17, said Principal Jerry Stapleton on Tuesday. He did not now how many close contacts had been identified related to those cases. All involved have followed school district protocols regarding quarantining.
“The community has been amazing throughout this process — super supportive and following protocols,” Stapleton said.
Homer High School also reported one positive case last week and none this week, Principal Douglas Waclawski said. Since the school year started there have been five total cases, with about 24 at home isolating who are close contacts. None of the cases came from transmission on campus, he said.
“There’s just so many cases in the community. It’s going to come into the building. There’s not anything we can do about that,” Waclawski said.
Fireweed Academy also had one case, Principal Todd Hindman said on Tuesday. Fireweed notifies parents of cases after contact tracing has been done.
“The parents are doing the right thing and we’re asking them to do, if you see any symptoms that are COVID-19 related, please keep them home,” Hindman said.
All staff wear facemasks indoors, he said, a decision made at the start of the year. About 75% of students have been masking, he said.
Other area schools may also have reports of COVID-19 positive cases, but at press time the Homer News was not able to contact every school in the area.
KPBSD is using the same COVID-19 quarantine guidance as the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services for the 2021-2022 school year, with those protocols largely based on whether or not the contact is vaccinated. However, the district observes an exception to those guidelines if an infected individual and their close contact were correctly using well-fitting masks and other mitigation measures were in place in the school. That exception only applies to schools where universal masking is observed.
In schools that do not follow universal masking for staff and students, a close contact is defined as anyone who is within 6 feet of someone who has COVID-19 for a cumulative total of 15 minutes over a 24-hour period. Once the district learns of a positive COVID case, close contacts are notified and a general communication is shared with the school community.
The quarantine protocol for close contacts depends on whether or not the person exposed is vaccinated, symptomatic or has tested positive for COVID in the last three months. Erkeneff said that when close contacts are called by their school nurse, that contact is asked to verify, if applicable, that they are vaccinated or that they have had COVID in the last three months. Erkeneff said KPBSD Nurse Melisa Miller asks for a vaccination status card or documentation of a positive COVID-19 test, and asks other school nurses to follow the same procedure.
In Seward, masks became required for students and staff at Seward Elementary on Monday in response to additional positive COVID-19 cases and student close contacts, Erkeneff said Monday.
“The principal and superintendent agreed an additional safety layer at (Seward Elementary School) was to put universal masking in place for staff and students, to avoid the need for close contact students to quarantine,” Erkeneff said.
The policy will be in effect through Sept. 9, when the district will reexamine and determine whether the school can go back to encouraging, rather than requiring, masks for staff and students.
By Wednesday, Seward Middle School and Seward High School also had gone to universal masking. Moose Pass School also adopted universal masking.
Other schools also are operating with universal masking, according to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard. Port Graham School, Susan B. English School and Tebughna School were all operating with universal masking per local health care requirements. Nanwalek School is operating remotely due to a seven-day “hunker down” order issued by the local community authority, effective Aug. 25. The school is expected to open to on-site learning on Sept. 7.
KPBSD quarantine protocols
Unvaccinated, asymptomatic close contacts of someone who is COVID-positive must immediately quarantine. They can return to school one to two weeks after exposure once cleared by public health.
Unvaccinated, symptomatic close contacts of someone who is COVID-positive must immediately isolate. If that person tests positive, they must keep isolating. If they test negative, they must stay home while symptomatic or until finished with seven- to 14-day quarantine, whichever is longer, then talk to a health care provider and consider testing again before returning to school.
Vaccinated, asymptomatic close contacts of someone who is COVID-positive do not need to quarantine. They must get tested within three to five days of exposure, must wear a mask for 14 days and should carefully monitor for symptoms over the next two weeks.
Vaccinated, symptomatic close contacts of someone who is COVID-positive must get tested and immediately isolate. If that person tests positive, they must keep isolating. If they test negative, they must stay home while symptomatic, then talk to a health care provider and consider testing again before returning to school.
Regardless of vaccination status, symptomatic individuals with no known contact should immediately get tested and stay home. A positive test means that person must isolate for 10 days. A negative test means that person should stay home while symptomatic, then talk to a health care provider and consider testing again before returning to school.
The CDC distinguishes between quarantine and isolation. Isolation separates sick people with a contagious disease from people who are not sick, while quarantine restricts people who were exposed to a contagious disease to see if they become sick.
KPBSD’s full COVID-19 mitigation plan, as well as community case numbers and quarantine protocols for vaccinated and unvaccinated students is available on the district’s COVID-19 website at covid19.kpbsd.org.
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reach reporter and editor Michael Armstrong at email@example.com.