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Anchorage schools will likely postpone a return to classrooms, superintendent says

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Due to rising COVID-19 cases in the city, Anchorage School District classrooms are unlikely to open for in-person school at the start of second quarter, according to superintendent Deena Bishop.

Bishop expects to announce in the coming days a postponement of the school district’s plan to transition back to classrooms, she said during a virtual town hall meeting held Tuesday.

“I don’t have a date out in the future yet" for when students return to classrooms, she said.

The school district had released a new school start plan in September that would phase students back into classrooms beginning with elementary and high-needs special education students on Oct. 19.

But COVID-19 case numbers in the municipality have “jumped tremendously” in the last week, Bishop said.

The number of new cases per 100,000 people during the last seven days has risen 52% from the previous seven days, according to the district’s data, updated Wednesday afternoon.

“I don’t know when that trend will end and so it’s certainly not time to open up schools,” Bishop said Wednesday during another virtual town hall.

The district is tracking trends in the data, such as whether the rates of COVID-19 cases in Anchorage are increasing or decreasing, because it is “significant in making sure we’re moving in the right direction," she said.

Bishop said she plans to give updates about the COVID-19 situation and the school district’s plan on the 1st and 15th of each month, and that the community should expect a more official announcement on Thursday.

The school district is tracking eight indicators to evaluate the community’s risk level, and two of those have risen to the highest risk level categories over the last week, Bishop said.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September released the new list of indicators for schools to use to evaluate risk, said Jennifer Patronas, the district’s director of health services.

Using the new guidelines “doesn’t give us just one single factor to look at, but rather a whole lot of factors to consider when making a decision on whether or not it’s safe to open schools,” Patronas said.

The district had previously been focusing mostly on one number, the rolling 14-day average of new daily cases, to evaluate its risk. An average of 28 cases per day had previously been required for Anchorage to be at a medium-risk level and to return students to classrooms.

At the time that the district announced its classroom reentry plan, the average number of daily cases over seven days in Anchorage ranged from about 35 to 40, Bishop said. That number had jumped to 64 on Wednesday, according to state data.

Still, it is important to consider multiple factors, Bishop said. The new indicators the district is tracking include the school district’s ability to implement mitigation techniques, the percentage of positive tests over the last 14 days and the number of hospital beds and intensive care units that are in use.

“There isn’t a magic number like we would like," Bishop said. "It really is that understanding of sitting down and understanding the virus, understanding our capacity to mitigate the virus.”

Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, said during Tuesday’s town hall that health experts are seeing a variety of approaches to opening schools throughout the country and in Europe.

“We are seeing a lot of cases coming out of European Union, cases with kids in school, with very different approaches country-to-country on how they approach it,” she said.

There has also now been a confirmed instance of transmission of the virus within an Alaska school, she said.

“It’s not surprising, but we continue to follow that closely,” Zink said.

She said that while kids tend to have fewer symptoms of COVID-19 than adults, they also play a larger role in the asymptomatic transmission of the virus than adults.

“We do see evidence of child-to-child as well as child-to-adult transmission,” Zink said. “We do see kids who test positive who are completely asymptomatic, and we do see kids with high viral loads.”

Zink said that there is “no playbook for COVID that we can all just follow and follow along. So we are all having to learn about this data and science as quickly as we possibly can.”

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