Sayéik: Gastineau Community School stands against a snowy backdrop on Jan. 4. Students in the Juneau School District are set to return to class on Monday. Despite rising COVID-19 cases across the City and Borough of Juneau, school officials say schools will be open and ready to welcome students. (Dana Zigmund/Juneau Empire)

Juneau schools to reopen Monday, as planned

Omicron upends return to US schools and workplaces

As businesses and schools announce delayed openings due to surging COVID-19 cases, Juneau’s public school students will return to school Monday, Jan. 10 — as planned — district officials confirmed Tuesday afternoon.

“Our goal remains kids in classrooms,” said board president Elizabeth Siddon in a late Tuesday afternoon phone interview. She added that the district’s mask policy and other mitigation measures will remain in place as students return.

“I, along with you, am watching carefully as we see the most recent version of this pandemic sweep across our country,” stated an email from Superintendent Bridget Weiss, which school officials shared with the Empire before it was released. “We have prepared for this and because we have made solid decisions along the way, we are ready to welcome students on Monday.”

[City raises risk level amid surging COVID cases]

Kristin Bartlett, chief of staff for the district, said that teachers and staff will start returning to schools this week.

“JSD is getting ready to welcome staff back for service on Thursday and Friday of this week, and then students next Monday as scheduled. There are no plans for virtual learning at this time,” Bartlett said in an email Tuesday afternoon. “As has been the case over the past two years, the Juneau School District will continue to monitor the pandemic and adjust operations and protocols as new information becomes available and new tools for prevention are accessible.”

The announcement comes a day after the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services reported a significant increase in the number of COVID-19 cases across the state, city officials reported that 12 staff members at Bartlett Regional Hospital are unable to work due to quarantine and isolation requirements and the City and Borough raised the city’s risk level to “Level 3-Modified High.”

When school officials developed the school calendar for the current school year, they purposefully added time to the back half of the holiday break with the expectation that many families may travel for the holidays after COVID-19 restricted many people from traveling last year.

The decision has paid dividends as schools around the country grapple with a return to classrooms amid a surge of cases and on the heels of holiday travel and gatherings.

“Our later return date allows us a longer buffer from holiday travel and gatherings,” Siddon said in a message to the Empire Tuesday afternoon. “Hopefully, this week buys us an opportunity to catch cases as people return,” she said.

Bartlett said the district is “echoing the city’s recommendation that travelers — including students, staff and families — get tested for COVID-19 upon their return to Juneau.”

Mitigations remain in place

Since school started, Weiss has described the school’s mitigation efforts as “layered.”

Bartlett told the Empire mitigation measures will continue. However, the school will follow the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s revised guidance on quarantine, which allows people to return to school after five days instead of 10 days.

“The district will be continuing with all of the mitigation measures that were in place last semester including universal masking, testing staff and student athletes, and isolation for positive cases. Schools will continue to use rapid tests for close contacts to allow Test to Stay in school rather than quarantine,” she said in an email.

Weiss said the district’s mitigation measures have proven effective and will be important going forward in her message to parents.

[New Year delivers a cold, snowy week]

“Our ongoing mitigation efforts continue to be very important and will remain our focus. It will be very important to keep our schools symptom-free and continue our other mitigations. We appreciate your help with these strategies and appreciate your patience as we get through the next few months,” the message reads.

Staffing concerns

Siddon said staffing levels remain a concern, but the district has a decision tree in place that allows leaders at each school to react based on what’s happening in the building.

“We have staffing concerns based on the number of cases in Juneau right now,” Siddon said.

She noted that classroom and school closure decisions can now be made case-by-case rather than forcing a districtwide shutdown.

Bartlett said the district now has a “good size pool of subs” compared to the number of substitute teachers available at the beginning of the school year.

“As the numbers of cases rise, we will see cases rise in our staff, too,” Bartlett said. “It’s a difficult time of year. We will stay tuned, but we are expecting people back on Thursday or Friday.”

Test-to-stay remains in place

Siddon said the school’s at-home test supply “is still robust” so school officials can continue the “test-to-stay” protocols announced in November.

Based on the new rules, unvaccinated students who have been exposed to the virus can take an at-home test each day before coming to school instead of quarantining, which the prior procedure required.

When the change was announced, Weiss said that quarantine requirements were weighing on staff and families—especially at the elementary school level, where the Delta variant had hit unvaccinated students hard—contributing to overall fatigue. She said home testing offered a way to minimize time out of school.

In November, Weiss said school district staff members are highly vaccinated across all roles. She said that about 94% of all school employees were vaccinated and noted that unvaccinated staff members participate in weekly testing according to the school board’s policy in September.

In November, the CDC approved the Pfizer vaccine for children ages 5 through 12. Previously, the vaccine had only been OK’d for people 12 and older. Shortly after the announcement, CBJ hosted five pediatric vaccine clinics in conjunction with the Juneau School District and vaccinated about 25% of the city’s eligible children, Robert Barr, CBJ’s deputy city manager, told the Empire last month.

This week, the Federal Drug Administration gave the green light for teens between 12 and 15 to get booster shots, a move the agency authorized for older teens in December. Bartlett said that city and school officials are working together to determine if an on-site vaccination clinic makes sense.

Track record

Since in-person school started in August, rates of COVID-19 infections affecting students at local schools have dropped.

When school started in August, local elementary schools reported at least one case most days. The infections led to quarantines of students and some suspension of in-person learning for classes to allow for contact tracing.

According to the school district’s website, cases dropped significantly in November after peaking in October.

Chaos around the country

Local officials made the announcement just as some school systems around the U.S. extended their holiday break or switched back to online instruction because of the explosion in COVID-19 cases, while others pressed ahead with in-person classes amid a seemingly growing sense that Americans will have to learn to co-exist with the virus.

Caught between pleas from teachers fearful of infection and parents who want their children in class, school districts in cities such as New York, Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit and beyond found themselves in a difficult position midway through the academic year because of the super-contagious omicron variant.

New York City, home of the nation’s largest school system, reopened classrooms to roughly 1 million students with a stockpile of take-home COVID-19 test kits and plans to double the number of random tests done in schools.

“We are going to keep our schools open and ensure that our children are in a safe environment,” newly sworn-in Mayor Eric Adams said.

New Yorker Trisha White said that she feels the risk is the same for her 9-year-old son in or out of school and that being with classmates is far better for him than remote learning.

“He could get the virus outside of school,” she said as she dropped the boy off. “So what can you do? You know, I wouldn’t blame the school system. They’re trying their best.”

While the teachers union had asked the mayor to postpone in-person learning for a week, city officials have long said that mask requirements, testing and other safety measures mean that children are safe in school. The city also has a vaccination mandate for employees.

New cases of COVID-19 in the city shot up from a daily average of about 17,000 in the week before the holidays to nearly 37,000 last week.

Across the U.S., new COVID-19 cases have tripled in the past two weeks to over 400,000 a day, the highest level on record, amid a rush by many Americans to get tested.

The high infection rates and resulting worker shortages are putting a heavy burden on employers large and small. Thousands of airline flights have been canceled in recent days, and many businesses have shelved return-to-work plans.

Weekend garbage collection was delayed in New Orleans, and jury trials in several Colorado counties were suspended. Some libraries on New York’s Long Island and a ski resort in New Hampshire had to close. A restaurant owner in Atlanta has spent $700 on rapid test kits and resorted to testing workers in the parking lot to make sure he had enough help to staff a recent dinner shift.

Dawn Crawley, CEO of House Cleaning Heroes, a cleaning service based in Herndon, Virginia, said she had to cancel four of 20 cleaning jobs for Tuesday because four employees were sick — three with COVID-19.

“The fear is it will run through the team” as well as customers, she said.

Contact reporter Dana Zigmund at dana.zigmund@juneauempire.com or 907-308-4891.

Snow sits atop the Sayéik: Gastineau Community School sign on Jan. 4. (Dana Zigmund/Juneau Empire)

Snow sits atop the Sayéik: Gastineau Community School sign on Jan. 4. (Dana Zigmund/Juneau Empire)

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