Soldotna High School English teacher Nicole Hewitt teaches her students remotely from her empty classroom at Soldotna High School on Monday, April 6, 2020 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)

Soldotna High School English teacher Nicole Hewitt teaches her students remotely from her empty classroom at Soldotna High School on Monday, April 6, 2020 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)

State reports 66 new COVID-19 cases; Education commissioner talks school start

Alaska Department of Education and Early Development Commissioner Michael Johnson said the state department is here to help individual school districts as they navigate how to reopen in a few short weeks amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

He joined Gov. Mike Dunleavy, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink and Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum in a press conference Tuesday night. Johnson said continued teaching, learning and activity are the main focuses of this school year, amid the pandemic.

DEED put out Smart Start guidelines for each district to follow, Johnson said, after which each district tailored its plans to fit its regional needs. Both the Anchorage School District and the Juneau School District, for example, are beginning the school year with online-only learning and no in-person education for the time being.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District will start the school year with a blended system of both virtual and in-person education, giving parents the choice of which version to enroll their children in. The district is also giving parents the option to switch their children from onsite education to remote learning, through entry and exit protocols set by individual schools.

KPBSD Superintendent John O’Brien announced on Friday that face coverings will be mandatory for all staff, and for students in third grade and above.

During the press conference, Johnson detailed a number of online seminar and virtual programs the state will put on this month aimed at answering educator questions about school safety and education.

Asked specifically whether the state will play a roll in helping school districts access cleaning and sanitation supplies, Johnson and Dunleavy said the state can lend a hand if needed.

“We have money for health that we got through the CARES Act, and we plan on assisting where we can, especially when it comes to mitigating the pandemic in terms of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment); equipment, testing – cleaning supplies would fall into that as well,” Dunleavy said. “So I think that’s an issue that we can assist school districts with.”

Johnson said he hasn’t yet heard of any school district having issues purchasing cleaning supplies.

“The United States Congress is currently, right now debating another COVID response bill that includes funding for schools for cleaning supplies but also PPE, and other supplies that might need to be purchased,” Johnson said.

He said that DEED employees would work with individual school districts should they run into issues getting enough cleaning supplies for their school buildings.

During her portion of the press conference as it related to the reopening of schools, Zink noted that 25% of teachers in Alaska are at risk for “serious” illness from COVID-19. Currently, 14.3% of all of Alaska’s cases are children, she reported.

However, “the data is unclear” when it comes to predicting how much children in schools will spread the virus to each other and their surrounding communities, Zink said.

One thing she pointed to as a helpful mitigation factor is creating small, age-appropriate cohorts. Breaking classes into smaller cohorts can help prevent one student with COVID-19 from spreading it to several other students, Zink explained. She also emphasized that minimizing mixing of student groups is a tool schools can use to mitigate disease spread.

On Tuesday the state reported 66 new cases of COVID-19 — 59 resident cases and seven nonresident cases. There are now 3,394 total cases of COVID-19 in Alaska residents, and 731 nonresident cases.

Of the new cases reported Tuesday on the state’s coronavirus response hub website, 40 are in Anchorage, two are in Eagle River, two are in Fairbanks, one is in North Pole, one is in the Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area, two are in Palmer, two are in Wasilla, two are in a Mat-Su Valley community labeled “Other,” two are in the Nome Census Area, one is in Utqiagvik, one is in Juneau, one is in Ketchikan, one is in the Aleutians East Borough and one is in Hooper Bay. This is the first recorded case for Hooper Bay, which is in the Kusilvak Census Area.

There were no new cases reported in Kenai Peninsula residents on Tuesday.

Cases reported by the state each day by noon reflect the cases that get reported to the state the previous day.

There are 987 Alaskans who are recovered, or presumed to have recovered, according to the data hub. Alaska has 2,382 active resident cases.

A cumulative total of 136 residents have been hospitalized in Alaska for the novel coronavirus, with one new hospitalization on Tuesday, as well as three total nonresidents who have been hospitalized. That includes people who have since died or since recovered. As of Tuesday, 27 people were actively being hospitalized for COVID-19, and six people were being hospitalized for suspected cases of the disease.

There have been a total of 25 deaths of Alaska residents attributed to COVID-19.

According to state data, Alaska has conducted a total of 252,649 COVID-19 tests as of Monday, for a 7-day positivity rate of 2.94%.

Locally, South Peninsula Hospital has conducted a total of 6,445 tests as of Tuesday, according to hospital Public Information Officer Derotha Ferraro. Of those, 6,209 tests are negative so far and 128 are pending. The hospital has had a total of 108 positive test results since the pandemic began.

Central Peninsula Hospital had done a total of 3,408 tests as of Tuesday, according to hospital Public Information Officer Bruce Richards. Of those, 3,245 tests have been negative, 99 are pending and 60 total test results have been positive.

In Homer, testing continues to be available from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily at South Peninsula Hospital’s main entrance as well as through SVT Health & Wellness clinics in Homer, Seldovia and Anchor Point. Call ahead at the hospital at 907-235-0235 and at the SVT clinics at 907-226-2228.

In Ninilchik, NTC Community Clinic is providing testing on Mondays, Wednesday and Friday. The testing is only for those traveling, symptomatic, needing testing for medical procedures, or with a known exposure after seven days. Only 20 tests will be offered per day. To make an appointment to be tested at the NTC Community Clinic, call 907-567-3970.

On the central peninsula, testing is available on the Central Peninsula at Capstone Family Clinic, K-Beach Medical, Soldotna Professional Pharmacy, Central Peninsula Urgent Care, Peninsula Community Health Services, Urgent Care of Soldotna, the Kenai Public Health Center and Odyssey Family Practice. Call Kenai Public Health at 907-335-3400 for information on testing criteria for each location.

Reach Megan Pacer at mpacer@homernews.com.

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