Anchorage School District shortens COVID-19 isolation to 5 days for students and staff, with caveats

Students and staff with the Anchorage School District who test positive for COVID-19 are now required to stay home for just five days — with some exceptions.

The previous isolation requirement was 10 days after a positive test result or symptom onset, whichever came first.

The shortened timeline was announced this week by superintendent Deena Bishop in an email, and is meant to reflect the latest guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to a district spokeswoman.

“For ASD, the amount of time to stay home if you test positive for COVID-19 has been reduced from 10 days to 5 days,” Bishop said in the email, citing the CDC.

The latest guidelines from the CDC and the school district are less straightforward than what Bishop said in her email, however, and include some additional qualifiers for ending an isolation period so soon.

The federal agency says that isolation periods should end after five days only for those who have been fever-free without the help of fever-reducing medicine for at least 24 hours, and as long as “other symptoms have improved.” The loss of taste and smell may linger for weeks and “need not delay the end of isolation,” the agency says.

That detailed guidance is reflected in the district’s most up-to-date At-Home COVID-19 Health Screening document — which is available online, and which Bishop linked to in her email.

That document includes additional information on what students and staff should do after a close contact, the emergence of COVID-19 symptoms or a positive test result.

It says that students and staff with virus symptoms and a negative test result can return to school as long as they are fever-free without fever-reducing medicine for at least 24 hours and have improved symptoms, the document says.

A five-day quarantine for unvaccinated staff and students who are close contacts of someone with COVID-19 is recommended but not required by the school district, the document says.

Driven by the highly transmissible omicron variant, COVID-19 case counts have been rising sharply in the state and around the country, though omicron cases appear milder than prior variants and have not yet overloaded hospitals in Alaska. By Friday, record case numbers were being reported for the state and for Anchorage.

The CDC has said that its reasons for shortening isolation and quarantine periods are based on emerging data that shows most COVID-19 transmission occurs in the early stage of an infection. The agency added, however, that it is critical for people to continue wearing masks in public in the days after their quarantine or isolation ends.

As the pandemic has stretched on, Bishop has repeatedly voiced a commitment to in-person learning and keeping schools open, though staffing shortages caused by the virus could result in temporary classroom or districtwide closures. A decision about whether the district’s mask requirement will be extended beyond Jan. 15 is expected by next Friday.

According to an online dashboard, there were more than 650 active COVID-19 cases across the district by Saturday. (The cases are self-reported to the school district, which has more than 49,000 students and employees, and don’t necessarily reflect all cases being tracked in Anchorage.) South High School was reporting a single-day classroom closure Friday due to a staffing shortage.