Education

Anchorage School District had no plans to report COVID-19 cases school by school. That changed this week.

The Anchorage School District is reversing prior policy and will now release COVID-19 case information for individual schools in response to community requests for transparency as the pandemic hits record levels.

Schools superintendent Deena Bishop announced the district will add information about active cases per school to an online dashboard starting Friday in a Wednesday evening update.

The delta variant that’s driving a surge in COVID-19 cases among vaccinated and unvaccinated people “brings new waves of uncertainty that we must address,” Bishop wrote in a letter to families.

“I’ve recently heard from families who want a better understanding of the COVID climate in their schools,” she wrote.

The shift to school-specific case reporting marks a fairly dramatic shift.

[Alaska reports 801 COVID-19 cases and a new record for hospitalizations]

Administrators at the state’s largest district, with more than 43,400 students enrolled in 2020-21, decided earlier this year not to disclose case counts at each school, citing confidentiality concerns.

Most of Alaska’s big school districts started the year reporting or planning to report school-by-school COVID-19 cases. The Matanuska-Susitna Borough and Fairbanks North Star Borough districts already do; Kenai Peninsula Borough District officials say their revamped site is expected to launch Thursday.

Anchorage was the lone exception, refusing to release school-specific information as recently as the start of this week.

The decision to publish only a summary of cases reflected the district’s goal “to find balance between public transparency and protecting the privacy of its staff and students,” according to a statement provided by spokesperson Lisa Miller on Monday, before the policy changed.

Anchorage’s COVID-19 dashboard currently shows a districtwide summary of new cases and a total since mid-August, plus any classrooms or schools where the virus prompts shifts to remote learning.

The district’s health services department requires a school to notify families when there is a confirmed case of COVID-19 in a classroom, even if their student is not considered a close contact, Miller said in an email. A letter goes out to the entire school community if there is a “significant situation” such as a classroom closure.

A Centers for Disease Control recommendation that allows masked students and vaccinated staff to stay in school when deemed a close contact is key to maintaining in-person learning, Bishop said in the letter. The district will continue to notify families if a student is determined to be a close contact, even if they don’t have to quarantine.

The previous Anchorage reporting policy didn’t satisfy families and staff within the district hungry for specifics about COVID-19 in schools, according to the president of the union representing 3,200 Anchorage School District employees, the Anchorage Education Association.

Union members wanted to know “what exactly is taking place” in schools, union president Corey Aist said before the district announced the new policy. His office early this week fielded calls from educators with questions but also information about different quarantines and close contacts that Aist said he couldn’t verify.

[An unvaccinated elementary school teacher in California took off her mask for a read-aloud. Within days, half her class was positive for delta.]

“It’s really important that we are up front with ourselves, that our community knows the amount of spread that’s taking place so the community can help offset that spread,” he said. “The community doesn’t know what it should do or not do if it doesn’t have that information. And everybody wants schools to be open.”

COVID-19 cases are rising at multiple school districts throughout the state, large and small, prompting masking or remote learning shifts. Several Railbelt districts, including Anchorage, enacted rolling bus route cancellations amid driver absences due to COVID-19 cases and exposures.

“If you haven’t yet, please make a health screening part of your daily routine with your younger students, and talk with your older students about the importance of staying home even if symptoms are mild,” Bishop wrote in the letter to families. “Making the decision to stay home and get tested will keep your child’s closest circle of classmates, peers, and teachers safe.”

The Anchorage School District is making COVID-19 vaccine available to eligible staff and students through pop-up clinics, she said.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Anchorage was reporting 324 active cases and 607 cases total, a rolling tally that rose throughout the day. Single classrooms are closed at Birchwood ABC Elementary, Eagle Academy Charter, Fire Lake Elementary and Wonder Park Elementary.

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District, with almost 19,000 students, has a COVID-19 dashboard that’s reported school-by-school case counts since last school year.

As of Wednesday, the district reported 45 new cases and 241 cases over a 7-day period. Ten schools had shifted to partial or universal masking because of outbreaks. Two -- Butte and Glacier View elementary schools -- have temporarily shifted to remote learning.

The Fairbanks North Star Borough School District, with more than 14,000 students, this week posted school-by-school counts on a new dashboard reporting 172 total student cases and 32 among staff since mid-August. The entire ninth grade at Hutchison High School and one classroom at Hunter Elementary were operating under “heightened protocols” including masking.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, with just under 9,000 students, is in the midst of a sharp spike districtwide: 180 student and staff COVID-19 cases reported since Aug. 23 plus another 1,082 staff and student close contacts as of Wednesday afternoon.

Eight Kenai Peninsula schools, including Seward Elementary, are requiring masks. One, Nanwalek School, is in remote status due to a seven-day local “hunker down” order.

The district plans to start publicly sharing school-by-school COVID-19 data on its dashboard by the end of this week, according to spokesperson Pegge Erkeneff.

District officials talked about putting out a summary number on the dashboard, like Anchorage has, but decided to provide more detailed information instead, Erkeneff said.

Seward Elementary principal Alan Haskins spent most of Sunday on the phone, reaching out to students and staff considered close contacts of numerous COVID-19 cases who spent time in school last week.

The outbreak triggered a universal masking policy for two weeks starting Monday.

“I’ve got nine students in school that tested positive, multiple, multiple close contacts. Then I’ve got several staff that are out because they’re positive,” Haskins said Tuesday morning. “That’s the information I share with my staff and community. That way they know: It’s here and it’s in the building.”

The issue of alerting the public to COVID-19 cases is done on a patchwork basis throughout the country, as different states provide differing levels of guidance on the subject.

Only three states explicitly require case reporting in schools: Hawaii, New Jersey, and California, according to Ben Erwin, a policy analyst with the Colorado-based Education Commission of the States.

Beyond that, guidance “really varies,” Erwin said. Some states defer to CDC guidance for their school districts while others have state guidance that’s not very clear on reporting. A number of districts in other states cite privacy concerns if they limit specific reporting, he said. “Especially if the guidance is a little more vague.”

Alaska’s Department of Education and Early Development has not issued directives for what schools can report regarding COVID-19 cases, according to public information officer Grant Robinson.

Districts must follow federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act rules, Robinson said. But individual districts can choose to report “unidentified personal information” -- the numbers of COVID-19 cases in a class or school.

“What they report is up to each individual district,” Robinson said in an email.

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