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YKHC says students are safer in schools than out of them. LKSD’s COVID-19 transmission levels support that claim

Jamin Crow and Ethan Sundown on their first day back after a year of remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. March 11, 2021 in Bethel, Alaska.
Katie Basile
Jamin Crow and Ethan Sundown on their first day back after a year of remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. March 11, 2021 in Bethel, Alaska.

Local health officials say that students are safer in schools than out of them. COVID-19 transmission levels in the Lower Kuskokwim School District back up that claim. Here’s how LKSD is working to keep students safe.

COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta are soaring to near all-time highs due to the more infectious and dangerous delta variant. Despite that, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation says that children should keep attending school in person.

“Studies have shown that when you take students out of school it has the opposite effect: they are exposed to more virus in the community, and they are more likely to get COVID,” YKHC Chief of Staff Dr. Ellen Hodges said during YKHC’s COVID-19 virtual town hall on Oct 5.

Hodges said that’s because schools have mitigation measures that protect against the spread of the virus.

“I think keeping those kids in school keeps the masks up, and it keeps them physically distanced and safe during that time period,” Hodges said.

Forty percent of the Y-K Delta’s COVID-19 cases are in children. The vast majority of these cases are in children under the age of 12 who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated.

Although there are a large number of school-age kids testing positive, Hodges said that contact tracing shows that they are largely contracting the virus outside of schools.

“We think only about 3% of that is related to in-school transmission and the rest is community based transmission,” Hodges said.

For example, in the Lower Kuskokwim School District, around 30 students or staff have been testing positive for the virus every week for the last three weeks, according to Superintendent Kimberly Hankins. But she said that contact tracing shows that students and staff aren’t contracting the virus during school hours.

“LKSD has not identified any in-school transmission of COVID,” Hankins said.

LKSD learns of positive cases either from parents notifying the district or through testing that’s done in schools. About half the students in the district have opted in for testing. Hankins is encouraging the rest of the parents to sign their children up. Here’s what Hankins says happens when LKSD learns of a positive test result.

“We notify the parents, the student is sent home to isolate, then we work to identify close contacts. If there are any close contacts, we notify those parents or families directly. And then following that, we notify the rest of the cohort,” Hankins said.

That way, parents know if their child was in the same classroom as a positive individual even if they weren’t a close-contact. Parents can then decide if they want to keep their child home for a while.

Although LKSD is operating in-person full-time, many students are attending school remotely. There are three main groups of students in remote learning. The first group is students who are quarantining because they tested positive or were a close-contact. Hankins said that there are about 200 to 250 students and staff quarantining in the district at any given time.

“So we've averaged between 4% to 5% of students and staff on quarantine each week,” Hankins said.

She said that students quarantining vastly outnumber teachers quarantining. When teachers are quarantining the school is usually able to find a substitute, but she has heard of one instance where the quarantining teacher’s class temporarily went remote.

Another group of students is remote because their school is closed due to a high number of COVID-19 cases in their community.

“We have eight sites on full time remote status,” Hankins said.

And the last group of students is remote because their parents chose to keep them home. Hankins said that there are about 175 students in this group.

“So that's a little more than 4% of our total student population that's opting for full-time remote,” Hankins said.

Along with in-person school, LKSD has also resumed sports activities. YKHC’s Hodges supports sports with some conditions.

“We believe it can be safely done with masks,” Hodges said. “There are some sports, like wrestling, where it might be very difficult to stay safely masked while you're wrestling. In those scenarios, we would recommend that be limited to vaccinated students only, and that masks be worn to whatever extent they can possibly be worn.”

LKSD’s current sports policy differs from YKHC’s recommendation. Hankins said that students are required to wear masks most of the time until they’re actively exercising.

“That would mean, like in wrestling, you’re masked until you're on the mat, and then your mask comes off,” Hankins said.

The district also does not require athletes to be vaccinated unless they’re traveling out of the region. Hankins said that the district may review its sports policy to align more with YKHC’s recommendation. Hodges supported that travel policy and said that athletes should also get tested after traveling.

YKHC and the City of Bethel now mandate all employees to be vaccinated. LKSD has no such requirement yet. Hankins said that’s something the district’s board directed her to explore with the teacher’s union.

“Stay tuned for more on that,” Hankins said.

Another development to look out for is vaccine availability for children under the age of 12. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is scheduled to meet on Oct. 26 to review eligibility for that group. Dr. Michael Bernstein, chief medical officer at Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage, shared the news in YKHC’s virtual town hall.

“We’re very hopeful that with the Pfizer vaccine that we could possibly have an emergency use authorization for children aged five to 11 for the Pfizer vaccine even by the end of this month,” Bernstein said.

In the meantime, LKSD is using masking, physical distancing, testing, and other measures to keep students safe in school.

Editor's note: The last line of this story was updated to include "and other measures" to describe LKSD's COVID-19 mitigation efforts.

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