District superintendent John Holst understands that the proposed travel policy will be inconvenient for many staff and students, but he considers it in the best interest of Sitka: “When schools are open the community functions pretty much normally,” he says. “When the schools close, that has a huge impact.” (Flickr photo/Marco Verch)

With the holidays just around the corner, the Sitka School District is considering adopting a travel policy that would follow stricter guidelines for quarantine and testing than currently used by the state. 

But the district’s proposed policy isn’t new — in fact, it’s old: Sitka’s schools want to return to the state’s  travel mandates that were in place prior to October 16.

Travelers entering Alaska now from out of state must have a negative covid test three days before arriving, or get tested at the airport. This is free for residents, but expensive ($250) for non-residents. After that, travelers have to quarantine and practice social distancing for five days — and then can be on their merry way, even without proof of a second negative coronavirus test. This is a huge change from state policy prior to October 16, which required a 14-day quarantine for people coming from out of state, which could be cut down to about 10 days if they got a test on day seven of the quarantine, and got their results about three days later.

A summary of Alaska’s travel mandate, effective October 16, 2020

Health Mandate 10, which addresses requirements regarding travel into Alaska, has been revised and went into effect on October 16, 2020. The changes keep protective protocols in place but are aimed at making the rules simpler and easier to understand. Key changes include: 

  • Changes to the Travel Portal now consolidate information for residents and nonresidents. As before, Alaska residents are eligible for a free COVID test when they return to Alaska, if they so choose, and may also opt to self-quarantine for 14 days rather than take a test. Nonresidents are strongly encouraged to take a COVID-19 test within 72 hours prior to departure but can test upon arrival into Alaska for $250.
  • Travelers into Alaska are now required to social distance for 5 days. A second test is optional but not required. Five days is the median incubation period. Strict social distancing allows travelers to visit outdoor public places, but asks that travelers remain six feet away from anyone not in your immediate household, wear a face covering and not enter restaurants, bars, gyms, community centers, sporting facilities, office buildings, and school or daycare facilities. Do not participate in any group activities, including sporting events and practices, weddings, funerals, or other gatherings.
  • A second test is optional and can be done 5-14 days after arrival
  • Residents leaving and returning to Alaska within a 72 hour window do not need to test or quarantine on return.
  • Critical infrastructure workers should follow their company’s protocols any time they travel.
  • Local restrictions still apply. Please check with local communities before you travel.

Sitka schools superintendent John Holst, however, is recommending that the school board adhere to Alaska’s earlier policies regarding travel. It wasn’t his idea: He had a recent teleconference with the state’s top medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, and put the question to her.

“I asked her, ‘What would you do if you were running a school?’ And she said, ‘I’d stay with the old guidelines.’”

Holst knows it will be inconvenient for many staff and students to quarantine for the longer time period, but he’s looking at the big picture. Sitka so far has been spared a major outbreak, and schools have been open and functioning smoothly since August. He doesn’t want to jeopardize what — compared to many districts around the state and country — has been a huge success.

“We’re going to consider that the schools are a different place than the rest of the community,” Holst said. “That’s the best way to say it. We’re very much wanting to protect the schools and the kids and the staff, because when the schools are open the community functions pretty much normally. When the schools close, that has a huge impact.”

Sitka’s schools haven’t been covid-free. On Thursday, October 22, the district confirmed that a staff member at Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary school had tested positive — the third case within the district this year. Public health nurse Denise Ewing conducted contact tracing that led to the quarantine of two additional staff members, but no students.

Holst says the district’s precautions around social distancing and hygiene have contributed to quickly limiting the possible spread of infection.

“I think Denise has realized that we have a lot of mitigation in place — layers of it,” said Holst. “And because of that, she’s made a conscious decision that we don’t have to shut down a whole part of the school because we’ve had one person test positive.”

Holst says that neither of the two other positive cases in the district — both at Blatchley Middle School — led to any additional infections.

The Sitka School Board will take up the matter of staying with Alaska’s stricter 14-day quarantine requirement for travelers coming into the state, when it meets next on Wednesday, November 4. “This is a big decision,” Holst said, “there should be public input.”