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Alaska schools left to forge their own plans ahead of a spring break without COVID-19 travel restrictions

  • Author: Zaz Hollander
  • Updated: February 28
  • Published February 28

Dena'ina Elementary School principal Andrea Everett at the Mat-Su Borough School District's COVID-19 smart school in Knik on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Like school principals around the state, Andrea Everett has been fielding spring break questions from Dena’ina Elementary parents preparing for something they haven’t done in a year: travel Outside.

WIthout a statewide COVID-19 emergency declaration in place, Alaska’s relatively strict travel testing and quarantine requirements shifted to a recommendation earlier this month.

At Dena’ina, a school of about 365 students west of Wasilla, families are asking what they should do. Everett said most told her they plan to test and self-isolate for five days even though it’s no longer required. A number of teachers timed their breaks so they could isolate before returning.

“Quite frankly, all of our families minus a couple have said they’re just going to follow the recommendation and go ahead and do it, because they want our schools to be open,” she said.

As spring break looms in March at schools around Alaska, the state’s large districts are issuing widely different travel guidelines in the absence of state restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Anchorage School District will require either pre-travel testing or “strict social distancing” before students or staff can come back. Mat-Su, Kenai Peninsula and Fairbanks North Star borough districts are recommending testing and self-isolation but say anyone without symptoms can return to school.

Juneau schools will shift everyone to remote learning for a week when classes resume “so that anyone who may travel over the spring break week has time to quarantine and get tested before they return to school,” said district spokeswoman Kristin Bartlett.

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School officials say they found themselves making tough decisions to arm families of students and staff with post-travel specifics before they left the state.

That’s due to the vacuum created earlier this month when state lawmakers and Gov. Mike Dunleavy allowed Alaska’s COVID-19 emergency declaration that authorized the state’s travel restrictions to expire.

The state’s travel orders enacted last summer were some of the strictest in the country, though largely voluntary: people arriving in Alaska from out of state had to show proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test or practice strict social distancing for 14 days unless they got a negative result on a second test.

Officials relaxed those restrictions in October to one test or a 5-day social distancing period, and lifted restrictions for people traveling for less than 72 hours.

Inbound passengers Alex Koehler and Melissa Engelhardt listen to instructions from Marvell Robinson at the COVID-19 testing site in the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport on July 17, 2020. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

Now without the declaration in place, a state health advisory has replaced the mandates. It says travelers “should consider” testing within 72 hours of the trip and taking a second test at least five days after arriving in Alaska, following strict social distancing protocols until results come in. Travelers still must contact state public health officials if results come back positive and self-isolate until cleared.

Generally, fully-vaccinated travelers should still get tested but don’t need to practice social distancing while waiting for results.

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Anchorage, where normally as many as half the families in the district travel out of state during spring break, is the state’s only large district to require either testing or strict social distancing. Traveling staff or students can’t come back without a negative test taken up to 72 hours before traveling or any time after coming back to Alaska. People who don’t want to get tested must stay out of school for 10 days.

Administrators took that step last week after realizing municipal officials had no plans to issue more restrictive travel guidance, said Jen Patronas, the district’s health services director.

“The nurses and the teachers were worried that without any type of policy in place that we were just going to bring COVID or a different strain of COVID into our school buildings,” Patronas said. “That was a concern of ours as well.”

Administrators checked with risk management and legal departments and believe they have the authority to require those steps in order to protect student and staff safety, she said.

Officials at the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, however, determined they couldn’t take action more stringent than the state, according to district spokeswoman Pegge Erkeneff.

The district is “strongly encouraging” families get tested upon their return and practice strict social distancing while waiting for test results, Erkeneff said.

In Mat-Su, which this week had the highest average daily COVID-19 case rate in the state, school officials say they will encourage either testing or strict social distancing but can’t require it.

The district sent an email to families at the start of the week: All District employees and students are recommended to follow the guidelines and strictly social distance or quarantine after out of state travel unless they have completed the vaccination series, or they have had COVID-19 in the past 90 days. However, these recommendations will not impact an employee’s ability to return to work or a student’s ability to return to school or participate in district-sponsored activities.”

That policy gives district principals and school nurses a certain comfort level and families the ability to change plans if they’re not willing to take the recommended steps to return, district spokeswoman Jillian Morrissey said.

“As we are getting closer to spring break, it’s clear that a lot of our families are geting ready to travel, some of them for the first time in a very long time,” Morrissey said. “We needed to be clear.”

The Juneau School District is requiring all students learn from home through April 5 after spring break ends and also has screening questions for students, Bartlett said.

Fairbanks North Star Borough School District superintendent Karen Gaborik explained that district’s policy in a Feb. 19 newsletter: “Strict social distancing is no longer a requirement after traveling outside Alaska, unless you test for Covid, so staff or students can return to work/school immediately unless they are symptomatic.”

The district is mirroring the state’s new health advisory, recommending testing and self-isolation.

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All the districts emphasize the fact they’ve already got COVID-19 mitigation strategies in place. The travel policies are on top of existing measures.

But some say the absence of comprehensive, statewide schools policy fails to protect families fleeing the dark, cold and same four walls, as well as others they come in contact with when they get home, even in Anchorage, which is adopting the strictest standards of the big districts.

Chris Saddler, an infection control nurse and Anchorage parent, urged state and school officials to follow Centers for Disease Control guidelines to test three to five days after travel but also quarantine for seven days post-travel.

“With Spring Break coming up, you will be jump-starting another Covid-19 surge in Alaska. And this time it will bring all the new COVID-19 variants our students and their parents have picked up while they’re traveling,” Saddler wrote in a recent email to various ASD officials including the school board, as well as health officials and the Daily News.

The email elicited a response from the state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink.

The state “strongly” recommends a second test after travel following the CDC modeling of transmission associated with travel, Zink wrote. She noted that free airport testing continues and encouraged Alaskans to stay home and quarantine for seven days even if they test negative.

“The airport travel testing will remain open and free for Alaskans to test and encourage all Alaskans to use these guidance to reduce the risk of spread of COVID-19,” Zink wrote.