Two elementary classrooms in Sitka were quarantined recently, after several students tested positive for the coronavirus.
The district administration credits an in-school testing program for helping limit the spread of virus to other classrooms.
The Sitka School District has so far escaped some of the worst outcomes experienced by schools in other parts of the country during the pandemic, where high infection rates at the start of the year this past August, in particular, forced districts to end in-person instruction just days after opening.
For much of the last school year, in fact, reported infections in Sitka’s school buildings were few and far between, and transmission of the virus within schools was thought to be zero.
That all changed on Friday, September 10.
“We had two classes last week quarantined, that were sent (home),” said Frank Hauser, superintendent of Sitka schools. “And then we brought the students back and had them test on Monday.”
The district’s optional covid testing program caught the two positives on Thursday, resulting in the quarantine of two classes at Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary School on Friday. Keet Gooshi Heen serves students in grades 2-5 — none of whom is yet eligible for a vaccine.
When those two classes came back to school on Monday, 100-percent of the returning students were tested, and four more positives were detected. The quarantine of one class was extended several more days.
The total active cases associated with Keet Gooshi Heen, as of Thursday, September 16, now stands at 8. Under previous mitigation strategies in place last year in the district, this many cases would have closed the building for two weeks. Instead, in-person learning is occurring as usual, except for the quarantined classes.
Hauser says this is the objective of the district’s “layered mitigation” strategy this year: To keep students in school.
“Our ability to offer our rapid COVID-19 screening testing earlier in the year was described as a game changer for us, especially for this year,” Hauser said. “You know, two of the positive students last week that were identified, were identified using our new screening, testing. And to date, we’ve actually tested hundreds of students along with staff. And we’re continuing to provide testing to bring students and staff back in the building safely after we’ve identified a positive case.”
The district uses a rapid antigen test developed by Abbott Laboratories to screen students. Any positives are sent to SEARHC for confirmation using a more accurate laboratory PCR test. The testing remains optional, however; parents or guardians have to fill out a permission form to allow the district to test their student. Because there’s not universal participation (approximately 20-percent), Hauser says it’s important for parents to be vigilant about their student’s health. Some of the recent cases were no surprise.
“Really, we know definitively that some of the COVID positive individuals and households and students coming back to school are sick,” said Hauser. “And so we just really want to encourage families, encourage students that are feeling sick or have COVID-like symptoms, that they stay home, get tested, and just make sure that they’re safe and follow the mitigations. Because we want to make sure that we keep COVID out of the schools.”
One other case reported by the district was associated with Baranof Elementary School, which houses K-1. Hauser says that positive was an adult vaccinated staff member, who is currently isolating.