Juneau schools prepare to reopen after winter break amid COVID surge

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.

Juneau’s schools reopen to students returning from winter break on Monday. Data shows that most schools in the U.S. are open for in-person learning.

In the last week, the U.S. recorded 1 million new COVID-19 cases. Across the country, districts are reporting staff shortages, a lack of tests and safety equipment like masks and air purifiers. Some districts don’t have enough bus drivers to transport the students to and from school. 

KTOO’s Bridget Dowd spoke with Juneau School District Superintendent Bridget Weiss on Friday about what it takes to keep schools open during a surge of new COVID-19 cases.  

Read a transcript of the conversation with minor edits for clarity.

Bridget Dowd: Let’s jump right in. How are you getting ready for schools to open their doors on Monday?

Bridget Weiss: Well, we are ready. We have staff, obviously, in in-service yesterday and today. As we look at Monday, we’re prepared. We have all of our protocols in place. We’re ready to start a new semester at our secondary schools. At our elementary, of course, it’s just a continuation. So we’re excited to get kids back!

Bridget Dowd: Do you have any teachers or staff members who are out due to contracting COVID-19 or being exposed to it?

Bridget Weiss: We certainly have had positives reported to us in the last week, both students and staff, I don’t have specific numbers. I’ve not had a large number of teachers, particularly, certainly some staff that have been positive in the last week. But there’s really no way of knowing, until we get to Monday, for sure if staffing is going to be an issue or not. We’ll be all hands on deck. 

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

Bridget Dowd: And as you might know, in Kodiak, the high school district had to close for three days because of employee absences. Given the sharp rise in positive cases in Juneau – are you prepared to handle teacher and staff shortages?

Bridget Weiss: We are, as best as anybody is. We don’t have a lot of substitutes, but we have worked all fall to create a bigger pool of substitutes. We’ve designed a system where we have some district-wide staff that are armed and ready, prepared to sub in buildings. We also offer pay to teachers, for them to sub during their prep periods at secondary — it’s by choice, but we also have that program created so we’ve really done everything that we can to prepare and to have as much human resource ready in case.

We also have other major systems that operated all last week. Anchorage has sustained themselves, Kenai, Fairbanks. So we also are seeing lots of districts be able to sustain their operations.

Bridget Dowd: What factored into your decision to return in-person instead of remote learning? Was there any pushback?

Bridget Weiss: No, everybody understands the importance of in-person learning. We are at a point in this pandemic that we need to continue to do every single thing possible to keep learning in person. We absolutely did our best from the beginning of this to serve students when they are not in our buildings, but the students’ experience is not the same. The hardship on our families when students are not in school is extraordinary. 

We know a lot more about omicron right now, quickly, than we knew about either the original COVID or the delta variant early on. So we just have so many tools right now that we didn’t have a year and a half ago, even a year ago. 

It’s important to remember that our community is highly vaccinated. Our staff is over 90% vaccinated and while we know that’s not a full barrier, it does make a big difference, in terms of illness and severity of illness, and with the new five-day quarantine guidance from CDC that will help us. We’re masking. Other communities are not masking the same as we are. We’re just relying on all of those tools to help us — pun intended — weather this most recent storm of the pandemic.

Bridget Dowd: Obviously, it’s difficult, especially during these times to predict the future, but do you foresee any situation in which you would return to remote learning?

Bridget Weiss: Well, yeah you’re right. I wish I had a crystal ball. I just don’t know. We know that we may be limited with staffing at some point in time. What I do believe is that if we get to that point in a building, we may have to make a building decision. 

I do not foresee a reason that we would have to shift the whole district to remote learning. We may have to do something at a school for a short period of time. I just don’t know that yet. You know, we are literally going to take this as we have so many times — day by day, week by week, school by school, and you know, communicate with parents.

Bridget Dowd: Other school systems are running into problems with outbreaks among transportation staff? Do you know if buses will be running normally? Obviously, the weather will factor into that as well

Bridget Weiss: Weather is gonna factor into transportation, but we’ve been very fortunate, and again, it’s because we’ve made these really good decisions along the way. We’ve been able to have lower levels of COVID in our sites, because we have for, now, a couple of months instituted a testing requirement. So we tend to catch cases earlier than we would otherwise. So the amount of exposure is limited and that has helped. We are testing our First Student drivers — anyone that’s unvaccinated. So I don’t anticipate huge issues there. 

We certainly are minimally staffed. We don’t have a lot of cushion just like everyone in the country, there just doesn’t seem to be enough human resource to fill positions and that makes us vulnerable like everybody else. But for now, I don’t have any reason to be panicking or foreshadowing, closures based on personnel. 

Bridget Dowd: And in Chicago this week, teachers refused to teach in person due to safety concerns. What are you hearing from teachers?

Bridget Weiss: Everyone is watchful, but I have gotten a strong sense from staff that they’re ready, they’re prepared, they’re excited to get started again, we have not gotten major pushback, we certainly made some adjustments to in-service today, to allow for people in some settings to virtually attend their training and so forth. We used large spaces. So I think by and large staff feels very supported through the decisions that we’ve made and the mitigation that we have in place.

Bridget Dowd: Just before the winter break, the Juneau School District moved from isolation and quarantine to a test-to-stay policy. Does the district still have a supply of rapid tests and how are you using them? 

Bridget Weiss: We feel pretty good about our supply and there’s a pretty good state supply we’ve been told and we’re using them the same way. So we adjusted our “test to stay” program based on the new guidance. So we’ll provide that testing for families or staff, any close contact for that five-day window for close contacts versus the seven, eight days that it was before. 

Bridget Dowd: You mentioned earlier that the district’s staff vaccination rate is more than 90%. Public health officials have consistently said that vaccinating students (to the extent that they can be vaccinated) is the best way to prevent severe COVID-19 infections. Do you know the vaccination rate among students?

Bridget Weiss: It hasn’t been provided for the younger students, but for our 12 to 18-year-olds, the number was very high in Juneau, in the 90 percentile.

Bridget Dowd: We talk a lot about students and teachers, but what about you? How are you keeping safe? Do you ever worry about getting sick? 

Bridget Weiss: I use all the same protocols that we provide for staff. So I take advantage of our testing program, I adjust as we get more information. So with this omicron as an example, I ordered my own personal set of KN95 masks from Amazon so that I could upgrade my mask from what I had been wearing. I ordered, by the way, a bunch of KN95 masks that should be in next week, so that I could provide them to buildings for staff to use. 

I try to distance myself, as much as I can, when I’m out and about in schools. I use hand sanitizer when I come in and out of schools, like I hope everybody is, so because I’ve taken advantage of every mitigation possible, I feel, you know, pretty safe. And I wouldn’t want anything less for any of our staff. 

Bridget Dowd: Alright that’s Juneau School District Superintendent Bridget Weiss. Bridget, thanks for taking the time today.

Bridget Weiss: Absolutely. No problem. You have a great day.

Bridget Dowd: You too.

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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