Anchorage School District cancels international travel for students amid coronavirus concerns

The Anchorage School District said Friday it was canceling all international travel in March and April over coronavirus concerns.

The announcement comes as state health officials say they now have the ability to rapidly test for the virus.

As of Friday, there were no suspected or confirmed cases of the new virus in Alaska.

Alan Brown, the school district’s director of communications, said that about 120 students headed to Europe, South America and Asia on school-sponsored trips in March would be affected by the district’s international travel cancellation.

Superintendent Deena Bishop made the decision to cancel the trips on Friday based on new advisories from federal agencies and concerns about exposing students to the virus, Brown said.

“We didn’t want to put students at any undue risk,” Brown said.

The district was also worried about students potentially getting quarantined abroad or returning home and having to be quarantined, Brown said. In early February, the district worked to quell fears from parents after a student returned to school after a family trip to China.

The district has not canceled any domestic travel plans for students, Brown said. And they have not made any decisions regarding summer trips.

The state of Alaska hasn’t had any confirmed or suspected cases of the coronavirus disease, known as COVID-19, but state health officials say they can now test for the illness faster with a new kit.

The kits came from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to a Friday announcement from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.

Louisa Castrodale, an epidemiologist with the state, said that no one in Alaska has been investigated for the illness and the state hasn’t had any confirmed cases of coronavirus.

Alaska health officials were notified that some travelers who had been in China recently did end up in Alaska.

Those travelers had not been to China’s Hubei Province, where the outbreak began, and they were screened for symptoms when they arrived at U.S. airports outside Alaska and complied with the CDC’s self-monitoring guidelines, Castrodale said.

Before the rapid tests came to individual states, health departments were sending their samples to the CDC’s headquarters in Atlanta, Castrodale said. They still might have to do that, Castrodale said, but Alaska now also can test from within the state.

Public health laboratories in Fairbanks and Anchorage now have the ability test virus samples. Results are expected within four to six hours, according to the health department announcement.

If there was a confirmed case of the virus, the identity of the individual with the virus would remain anonymous and health officials would notify the public, according to state health officials.

“We’re grateful that we now have the capacity to conduct these tests in state, before any testing needed to be done,” Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer, Anne Zink, said in the release.