Teachers and students who might have hoped to resume normal school activities after May 1 will now have to wait until the next school year, as Alaska officials have extended the statewide school closure through the end of the academic year as cases of COVID-19 continue to rise.
The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services announced nine new cases on Thursday of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, bringing the total number of cases in Alaska to 235. Five of those new cases are in Anchorage, two are from Fairbanks, one is from Wasilla and one is from Kenai.
This means the city of Kenai now has two cases of COVID-19, bringing the total number of cases affecting Kenai Peninsula residents to 14. One of those 14 cases is an Anchor Point man who died out of state, and one of the 14 cases is a Homer resident who did not actually have the disease in Homer, but in Anchorage.
Of the new cases announced Thursday, DHSS and Dr. Anne Zink, chief medical officer for Alaska, reported that three of the people affected are male and six are female. One of the new cases is a person between the ages of 20 and 29, four are people in the 30-39 range, two are aged 50-59, one is aged 40-49 and one is aged 70-79.
There were no additional deaths or hospitalizations announced Thursday. That means a cumulative total of 27 people have been hospitalized, but that number doesn’t include people who have since died or gotten better and left. The state’s website dedicated to reporting coronavirus data states that 49 people in Alaska have so far recovered from the disease.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy and DHSS Commissioner Adam Crum announced Health Mandate 13 on Thursday, which extends the state’s current school closure. Crum also announced updates to a few other previous mandates.
School buildings had originally been closed until May 1. Now, they will remain closed through the rest of this academic school year, Dunleavy and Crum announced.
“The reason for this is we don’t know what this virus is going to do,” Dunleavy said. “And we’re trying to give as much certainty as we can to the public. … To wait another two weeks or three weeks, when we’re already close to the (end of the) school year by that point, we feel would cause more disruption and more confusion, so we’re extending the mandate for the rest of the year.”
Distance learning efforts currently being performed by schools will continue, and is up to the individual school districts, a press release from DHSS said.
“As school districts contemplate how to properly celebrate this year’s graduates, COVID-19 Health Mandate 011 – Social Distancing is still in effect, which prohibits gathering for events, such as graduation,” the press release states.
A rule stipulating that school districts can only carry over 10% of their funding from one fiscal year to the next will be suspended, Dunleavy said. School districts will be allowed to carry more than 10% of their funding over for the duration of the state’s declaration of emergency.
“The idea is that school districts may be able to find more savings so that they can carry over and be prepared for going into next year after July 1, because again, we don’t know what’s going to happen with this virus,” Dunleavy said. “… This will be an additional tool for school districts to be able to use to assist with their budgets as they go into next year.”
Crum announced during the press conference that Health Mandate 6, the one postponing elective oral health procedures, will now remain in effect until it gets rescinded. These procedures were originally postponed for one month.
Additionally, Health Mandate 11, which stipulates Alaskans must stay home if they are not part of essential services and prohibits gatherings, has been extended to April 21, at which point Crum said it will be reevaluated. Health Mandate 12, which prohibits travel between communities within the state, was also extended to April 21.
Speaking about the exemption for outdoor recreation in the social distancing mandate, Dunleavy clarified that traveling from one community to another community does not violate Mandate 12, the mandate prohibiting intrastate travel, if the purpose is for outdoor recreation and social distancing can be maintained.
“We’re a free society, and we do best, we behave best, we work well together when we understand the urgency of it, and not, or doing something because we feel the law may come down on us,” Dunleavy said. “And so far from our perspective Alaska’s doing pretty good. Can we do better? We can always do better, but that doesn’t mean that the state should be chasing people around and citing them or worse. And so, we don’t believe that’s necessary at this point.”
As long as 6 feet of distance can be maintained while outdoors or at state recreation sites, people are allowed to leave their communities for that purpose. For example, an Anchorage resident could travel to Hatcher Pass for recreation, Dunleavy said.
“I mean, this is going to help us get through these long days and weeks of having to change our lives significantly,” he said. “And a lot of Alaskans, if not most Alaskans, are here because of, to a great extent, the great outdoors. You can go, you can leave your community to go to Hatcher Pass or Portage, etc.”
What the state is trying to avoid through prohibiting travel between communities is someone getting on a plane and potentially bringing COVID-19 to another community, especially a remote one, Dunleavy said.
“And in terms of how do we police that? We do best when we police it ourselves and we respect each other,” Dunleavy said. “And then we just keep in the back of our minds that we’re trying to help other folks, especially those that are most vulnerable. So, at this stage of the game, we don’t see any need to go chase folks around and cite them and fine them.”
Also during the press conference, Dunleavy announced that President Donald Trump has accepted Alaska’s request for a federal disaster declaration, and that he made that declaration late Thursday afternoon.
“This is going to help us get more tools and more flexibility in the spending of resources to be able to deal with this pandemic,” Dunleavy said. “And it’ll help us deal with mitigation in communities as well as our health system.”
What exact federal resources will now become available was not immediately clear.
At a statewide audio town hall meeting tonight with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Sen. Dan Sullivan, R- Alaska, Sullivan also noted the presidential disaster declaration.
“That’s important because that will enable our state to take a number of actions to be fully reimbursed by our government,” Sullivan said.
Reach Megan Pacer at firstname.lastname@example.org.