The Anchorage School District will no longer require asymptomatic students and staff deemed close contacts of infected individuals to quarantine, regardless of their vaccination status.
The policy change was announced in an email to families from district superintendent Deena Bishop on Monday afternoon. It was prompted by a review of data that showed close contacts weren’t leading to additional cases, and the determination that the existing policy put an undue burden on parents and led to too many students missing school.
“This change in protocol is necessary to ensure a level of service that enables our staff and students to remain in school if asymptomatic,” the letter said.
The shift primarily applies to unvaccinated students and staff who aren’t showing symptoms, since vaccinated, asymptomatic students and staff deemed close contacts haven’t needed to quarantine and could continue with in-person learning under existing policy.
Asymptomatic students and staff who were deemed close contacts and were unvaccinated did need to stay home and quarantine prior to the change. Now, as long as they are asymptomatic they won’t have to quarantine, regardless of vaccination status.
The change was prompted by several factors, Bishop said during an interview Monday. A month into the school year, officials saw that a lot of asymptomatic students would end up needing to quarantine — which cut off in-person learning access — but weren’t ending up with COVID-19, she said.
[Fairbanks schools will start requiring masks next week. Mat-Su and Kenai, both grappling with surging COVID-19 infections, are still going without.]
District officials also heard that delays in test results were keeping close contacts out of school as they waited, she said. And, the policy created inequitable burdens for parents, some of who needed to stay home from work with a quarantined student. They also saw students deemed close contacts who, despite being in quarantine, were with other students outside of school, Bishop said.
Under federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, a close contact is defined as someone who was within 6 feet of another person infected with COVID-19 for a cumulative 15 minutes or more in 24 hours.
However, those guidelines include an exception for K-12 students. If those students are not within 3-6 feet of an infected student and wearing masks the entire time they are not considered close contacts. The exception does not include teachers or other school staff.
Since masks are required in the district, most of the student exposures happened during lunch and recess when students were unmasked, Bishop said. She said the district isn’t finding areas like the lunchroom to be places where students pick up COVID-19.
Notification to families about a student being a close contact will still occur and is not going to change, Bishop said.
The policy shift does diverge somewhat from existing CDC guidance, which states that unvaccinated close contacts should still quarantine.
Bishop said the district made the decision after conversations with state health officials and upon reviewing the similar policies at other districts in the nation.
She also said the district is using better distancing tactics during lunch, including assigned seating and requiring students to put masks back on when they’re finished eating.
“So even within the CDC guidelines, although they say, these are the best practices, they are highly valuing in-person learning,” Bishop said. “And so I would charge that, ASD is following CDC guidelines, is really considering that balance of in person learning, access to an education — being home without may just be more detrimental to that child in our community as well.”
Previously, students would have to automatically quarantine, Bishop said, but now parents can choose the best course of action, including quarantine if they want. And the change doesn’t apply to any student or staff member who’s sick or showing symptoms.
“We do live in a time that you use the best of information to make the best of decisions at the time that you have them, and that you’re humble and nimble enough to adjust them when that’s necessary as well,” Bishop said. “And that’s all ASD is doing.”