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Mat-Su, Alaska’s largest school district with in-person classes, reports tripling of COVID-19 cases this month

  • Author: Zaz Hollander
  • Updated: October 20, 2020
  • Published October 20, 2020

Colony High School on September 1, 2020. The school near Palmer was closed Monday and Tuesday due to a COVID-10 case. (Marc Lester / ADN)

PALMER — Schools in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District, Alaska’s largest district to remain open for in-person learning, this week reported 45 COVID-19 cases at 25 schools since the school year began in late August.

That’s more than three times the number of cases reported three weeks ago. There have been 25 cases confirmed in the last 10 days at 19 charter, elementary, middle and high schools from Palmer to Talkeetna, according to a district list.

Additionally, public health workers have identified a total of about 300 students or staff considered “close contacts” to the 45 cases identified since August, according to district spokeswoman Jillian Morrissey. Generally, close contacts are told to quarantine for 14 days to prevent additional spread of the virus.

It’s not clear how many of the school contacts did so.

The Mat-Su Borough School District described itself as one of the largest districts on the West Coast to open for in-school learning when the year began. Other districts are watching the results as they make their own decisions about in-person classes.

Mat-Su opened in late August offering in-school learning, with options for online or home school classes. The district has required students in grades three through 12 to wear masks while in school, and implemented other mitigation techniques like reducing the number of classes for middle and high school students per day and using seating charts to make contact tracing easier.

The district has experienced a flurry of coronavirus cases, usually just one or two, that prompt temporary closures and a shift to online-only learning.

Most recently, seven schools in Mat-Su including two of the three biggest high schools in the borough temporarily closed this week due to new COVID-19 cases. Mat-Su Central School, Fronteras Spanish Immersion Charter School, Sherrod Elementary and Houston Junior Senior High School were closed Tuesday.

Colony High School, Wasilla High School and Mat-Su Career & Tech High are closed to in-person learning all week, officials say. Palmer High School remains open.

The district on Sunday also postponed indoor sports until the end of the month.

Anchorage schools remain in online mode, though officials announced plans last week to return pre-K through second graders and and high-needs special education students through sixth grade to classrooms next month.

Most Kenai Peninsula schools have shifted to remote learning due to rising case levels there.

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough is also experiencing a broader increase in positive COVID-19 test results. Mat-Su hit a “high” alert level over the weekend for its growing daily average per capita case rates.

The district’s health advisory team makes school closure decisions based on virus transmission within communities, Morrissey said. The definition of community can change, however.

If there is what’s considered widespread transmission, the entire borough may constitute a community, she said. If there’s low to moderate transmission, the community may be as specific as a single school site.

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