The Anchorage District in September announced a new plan to bring some students back for in-person classes in October. But this week, that plan was delayed.
So what changed?
Superintendent Deena Bishop cited a jump in transmission rates in the city as the major reason behind the postponement. Transmission of the coronavirus is widespread in the Anchorage community, according to Alaska Department of Health and Social Services data.
Dr. Liz Ohlsen, a staff physician at the state’s Division of Public Health, is currently working with state and public health officials to help prepare schools and districts for operations during the pandemic.
The case rates in a community are the “main determining factor” in whether a person who has COVID-19 but does not know it ends up inside a school building, Ohlsen said Wednesday.
“If you have a lot of virus circulating within the community, as unfortunately we do in Anchorage today, that risk is much higher,” she said.
As of Friday, even without in-person school, there were 25 active cases of COVID-19 among staff and students in the school district, with another 78 people in the district in quarantine after having close contact with someone who tested positive, the district reported Friday. Currently, 10 different high school sports programs have teams in quarantine.
Educators have expressed reservations over the possibility of returning to in-person school while the coronavirus surges locally.
Still, the decision to postpone in-person classes affects the education of the more than 45,000 students in Anchorage who now must take classes virtually or through a home school. Kindergartners are stuck learning math and reading online. Most of the 2,500-plus teachers in the district now teach classes over Zoom.
The district’s most vulnerable students are struggling. Parents are balancing their jobs while supporting at-home learning. Many working families have been left without child care.
School officials and Alaska health experts this week discussed the risks of COVID-19 and opening public schools, and answered a few commonly asked questions about the district’s decision:
How is ASD deciding whether to open schools?
The school district is using new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to evaluate whether it’s safe to return to classrooms.
This district’s health care services director, Jennifer Patronas, explained that previously, the district had been considering just one data-based metric: the rolling 14-day average of new daily cases. It was also considering factors like its ability to implement mitigation techniques.
Now, Patronas said, the district is looking at eight factors.
The first indicator is the rate of new cases within the last 14 days, a good indicator of community spread.
As of Thursday, according to school district data, Anchorage’s rate was just over 272 cases per 100,000 people. That puts the city in the CDC’s highest-risk category for that particular measurement of transmission.
The other core indicators include the percent of RT-PCR coronavirus tests done in Anchorage during the last 14 days that were positive, and the ability of schools to implement five key mitigation strategies, such as contact tracing. Both, as of Friday, were in the “lower risk of transmission” category.
Secondary indicators include the change in the rate of new cases during the last seven days compared with the previous week.
Bishop said this is one indicator she pays close attention to because it shows the direction the city is headed in — whether transmission is increasing or decreasing. A negative percentage shows an improving trend.
When the district announced the postponement of in-person school, that rate change had been increasing sharply — 52% as of Wednesday.
On Friday, that increase eased somewhat to 19%, but that still indicates cases are trending upward, keeping the the district in the highest-risk category, according to its data.
The other secondary factors include the number of hospital and ICU beds in use, how many are in use by COVID-19 patients and whether there is a community outbreak.
What have Alaska’s health experts seen so far in school districts that have opened?
Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, said that for the most part, schools that have opened have been successful in mitigating the spread of coronavirus. But there has recently been a documented case of COVID-19 transmission from student-to-student in an Alaska school, she said.
It is not surprising, given the widespread transmission of COVID-19 in many communities, she said.
Zink declined to say which school or school district to avoid identifying the students.
Ohlsen in an emailed statement said health experts in Alaska have seen school districts with higher community transmission rates that open for in-person classes end up with more confirmed cases in their schools than the districts opening with low community transmission rates.
“This is consistent with our expectations," Ohlsen said. "Schools are a reflection of our communities.”
Ohlsen also said that mitigation efforts in schools will never be perfect.
“The fact that Alaska had in-person school in some districts for a month before the first known case of in-school transmission is a testament to how well school districts have done in implementing mitigation efforts," she said.
"But as cases rise, particularly in our urban areas, mitigation efforts may not be enough,” she said.
Mitigation efforts all work together to minimize the spread, Ohlsen said, including social distancing of 6 feet within schools, mask wearing, hand-washing, hygiene and good ventilation.
It’s also key that schools implement a “symptom-free policy," meaning that no one with any symptom, no matter how mild, goes to school.
Kids get the flu every year. So what is the difference between COVID-19 and influenza when it comes to schools?
Flu season is here. Zink said that although it may be difficult to tell the symptoms of the regular flu apart from COVID-19 initially, the two are very different.
Both are spread through respiratory droplets, but COVID-19 is more contagious.
“The genetic variant of COVID is becoming more contagious, meaning it spreads more easily from person-to-person,” Zink said. "And so that is becoming the predominant variant that we’re seeing across the Lower 48. "
Also, there is a vaccine to protect against influenza, but there is not yet a vaccine for the coronavirus. There are more treatment options for the flu than there are for COVID-19, she said. And the fatality rate of the viruses is also different, Zink said.
The chance that someone will get severely ill and need hospitalization is different depending on underlying health conditions and age, she said.
In general, young children are more likely to die from the flu than from COVID-19, she said. But people over the age of 15 with COVID-19 are more likely to die. During last year’s flu season, 11 people died from influenza; eight were adults and three were children.
“We do see (flu) deaths every year,” Zink said. Still, since March, more than 50 Alaskans have died of the virus, she said.
Ohlsen said that the long-term effects of COVID-19, still unknown, are of particular concern.
Some effects may linger and affect a person’s health long-term. And although rare, there are sometimes severe health problems in young people that result from the coronavirus infection, Ohlsen said.
Scientists can look at similar viruses and how those affect various ages groups, but they still don’t have a sense of the recovery timeline, she said.
"If it sounds like I don’t have all the answers here, it’s because we really don’t have all the answers,” Ohlsen said.
What are the COVID-19 trends in school-aged kids in Anchorage?
Health experts in Anchorage are seeing kids with COVID-19 regularly, and the numbers have picked up over the last three months, said Dr. Bruce Chandler, a medical officer with the Anchorage Health Department.
“It’s very upsetting. We’re not at a level where our kids can return to school,” Chandler said Friday at a community briefing.
“We’ve had 76 children and teenagers who tested positive for COVID this week.”
Transmission of COVID-19 in Anchorage is widespread and everyone should be taking precautions, Chandler said.
“The bottom line is, we should all wear masks all the time, unless our face is underwater,” Chandler said.