Juneau schools offer antigen tests as alternative to quarantines for students who’ve been exposed to COVID

Sophie Griffith, 5, gets a kiss from her dad, Scott Griffith, after getting her COVID-19 vaccine during a pediatric clinic at Riverbend Elementary School in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

The Juneau School District is no longer requiring students to quarantine at home after being exposed to someone who tests positive for COVID-19.

Instead, families now have the option to use antigen tests before sending their kids out the door.

The school district has received 850 antigen tests from the state. Those tests are distributed to families on a case-by-case basis when students are exposed to someone who’s COVID-positive.

Juneau School District Superintendent Bridget Weiss said so far this month, that’s happened about six times.

“In each of those cases we were able to eliminate the need for students to quarantine,” Weiss said. “And so far, none of those tests have come back positive.”

In the past, when unvaccinated students were exposed, they had to stay home from school for seven days. They would get a PCR test for COVID-19 on the fifth day (to make sure they were clear) and could return to school on the eighth day.

Until recently, all elementary school students were unvaccinated, which meant frequent quarantines for classes in those grade levels.

Now, when unvaccinated students are exposed, the family can decide whether they’d like to quarantine or pick up antigen tests to use for the week.

Bridget Weiss Antigen Test Box
The Juneau School District is now offering antigen tests as alternative to quarantines for students who’ve been exposed to someone who tests positive for COVID-19. (Photo courtesy Bridget Weiss)

“We give [the tests] to the parents when we notify them that their child was a close contact, and they test their child before school,” Weiss said. “With a negative on that antigen test, then they can send their kid to school.”

Juneau Public Health still suggests those kids stay away from community activities during that time. If the student develops symptoms at any point during that period, they have to get a PCR test and they’re still required to get a PCR test on the fifth day, even if they don’t develop symptoms.

So what’s the difference between an at-home antigen test and a PCR lab test? Juneau Emergency Manager Robert Barr said a PCR test is much more sensitive.

“By sensitive, I mean it requires a lot less of the virus in the sample to return a positive result, whereas an antigen test is not as sensitive,” Barr said. “So you need more of that virus on the specimen in order for it to return a positive result.” 

A PCR test will detect COVID-19 sooner than an antigen test, but Barr said that doesn’t mean antigen tests aren’t as good. 

“It’s generally thought that the amount of viral load that you need to be infectious, correlates pretty well with the sensitivity of antigen tests,” Barr said. “So while a PCR test might detect you a little bit sooner, even before you’re infectious, antigen tests are pretty good at detecting you once you are infectious.”

Both tests require a nasal swab. The hope is that as more students get vaccinated, and as long as they don’t show any symptoms, fewer families will have to worry about testing at all.

During the first round of city-run vaccine clinics for children five and up, 648 kids received a shot. Second-dose clinics for those children will begin Nov. 29.

Ketchikan’s school district announced Wednesday night that it would also start a test-to-stay program.

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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