COVID-19 in the classroom: How are Juneau’s schools keeping students healthy?

Maddie Bass watches as Zara Ritter ties her shoe during an art class on the first day of school at Dzantik’i Heeni middle school on Monday, August 16, 2021, in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

It’s been just over three weeks since students returned to Juneau’s classrooms and so far, school case numbers seem to be reflecting the rates of the city as a whole.

“Our most frequent cases are at elementary where kids can’t be vaccinated yet,” said Juneau School District superintendent Bridget Weiss. “Our response is most of the time to quarantine a classroom.”

Bridget Weiss is the superintendent of the Juneau School District.
Bridget Weiss is the superintendent of the Juneau School District. (Photo courtesy of Bridget Weiss)

When someone tests positive for COVID-19, staff at Juneau’s Public Health division determines when that person can return to school based on factors like their symptoms and when they took the test.

When someone has been in close contact with an infected person, they get tested five days after exposure and if the result is negative, they can return to school on day eight.

Weiss said so far, that response has proven effective, but it isn’t always easy because reports of positive cases or possible exposures come in at all hours.

“A couple of times, I’ve been notified of an elementary case at about 7:00 in the morning, 7:15, 7:20,” Weiss said. “So we are sometimes calling parents right before school starts to say ‘please don’t send your kid’ or ‘come pick up your kid’ and that’s unfortunate but it is what we have to do sometimes.”

Until recently, school officials were under the impression that they couldn’t ask staff members if they’d been vaccinated, but that’s no longer the case.

“We’ve gotten some clarity this week and I’m super excited that we can request verification of vaccination status, that it is not protected by [health information privacy laws],” Weiss said. “So that is going to be a huge tool for us and many many of our staff tell us that they’re vaccinated or not. It’s just very few that don’t want to do that.”

If for any reason a staff member doesn’t answer, the district just assumes they are unvaccinated for any protocols built around vaccine status.

“It is simply operational information,” Weiss said. “What we want is a safe environment. So whether somebody is vaccinated or not, we don’t hold any judgment on that. We just need to know so that we can respond accordingly.”

She estimates about 70 to 80 percent of all school staff members are currently vaccinated against COVID-19. Optional weekly tests are also available to staff members.

As for athletics and activities, participating high school students have been tested frequently for COVID-19. Starting this week, the district is also implementing that policy for middle schoolers.

Every opportunity for teams to travel is looked at individually and the trips are being kept as short as possible.

“We used to play football at seven or eight at night,” Weiss said. “Now, we’ve been playing them at three in the afternoon because teams can come in in the morning, play and then go home that night and not have any overnight. So again, [it’s] limiting that exposure.”

Those teams are no longer eating out at restaurants. They bring food with them instead. Student athletes who’ve been vaccinated are allowed to opt out of testing. However, all policies are subject to change based on the most up to date information.

“If we started seeing cases pop up in our activities, then we might tighten it and just say: ‘There’s no opt-out. Everybody’s testing,'” Weiss said.

Back in school buildings, masks are still required for everyone, proper hand washing has been taught and re-taught to younger kids, and air purifiers have been installed.

“Most of our kids, most of our staff, when they’re at school, it’s the most mitigated environment that they participate in,” Weiss said. “So far that’s paying off.”

At this point, Weiss doesn’t see a scenario where the whole district would have to return to remote learning again.

“I just think we’re far enough down the road,” she said. “I could be wrong. Stranger things have happened in the last 15 months that we never would have predicted. But with everything that we know up to this point, I would be incredibly surprised if we ever had to take that step.”

In some cases, the district has moved one grade level or one school to distance learning when cases emerged. School officials plan to take that approach for the foreseeable future.

Bridget Dowd

Local News Reporter

I keep tabs on what’s happening in Juneau’s classrooms for the families they serve and the people who work in them. My goal is to shine a light on both stories of success and the cracks that need to be filled, because I believe a good education is the basis of a strong community.

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