Juneau-Douglas High School students wait for rides home school on Feb. 4, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Juneau-Douglas High School students wait for rides home school on Feb. 4, 2019. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

University of Alaska, Juneau School District brace for coronavirus

Both are putting steep measures in place to lower outbreak risk

The Juneau School District released its response plan to district parents on Monday, outlining firebreaks placed in the path of a coronavirus outbreak.

“It is a plan we have used in the past,” said JSD chief of staff Kristen Bartlett in a phone interview Thursday. “We did review it and updated it. We’re looking at ways we can really slow the spread of this.”

JSD’s tiered response plan has several levels of response based on the apparent threat. The district is currently at Level 1, Bartlett said. Level 1 includes communicating basic hygiene practices to students, extra cleaning of shared surfaces, and barring international travel for staff and students at this time, among other measures. The Level 1 measures have been in place for several weeks.

“Even though we don’t have any confirmed cases in the state, we’re trying to limit the traffic in and out of schools,” Bartlett said. “We’re adding some more social distancing and cleaning practices.”

School officials have taken to as many platforms as possible to inform the students about best practices to prevent the inadvertent spread of disease.

“At both games last night, I spoke to the crowd and reminded them about healthy habits,” said JSD Superintendent Bridget Weiss. “We are adjusting weekly, more like daily, at this point.”

Weiss said that the school is working closely with the City and Borough of Juneau, public health centers in Juneau, and the Department of Health and Social Services to tailor their response to protect the community and support the mission of the schools. Though Alaska has no confirmed cases yet, the governor has said that the spread is likely.

“None of us knows what 2 weeks from now will look like,” Weiss said.

If a confirmed case appears in Alaska, Bartlett said, the JSD will elevate its response level to the appropriate intensity. Weiss was adamant that students who feel unwell should stay home and avoid contaminating the rest of the population.

“Every person — kid, parent, staff member — when they don’t feel well, they need to stay away from school,” Weiss said. “If we have a student that doesn’t feel well, we would send them home.”

Weiss said that the district will endeavor to keep the schools open. If circumstances do compel the district to shut down all the schools, the district is currently exploring options to continue educating students as best as possible. Weiss also said the district considering how best to continue providing breakfast and lunch for students who rely on the school meals.

University of Alaska

The lower schools aren’t the only institutions implementing defenses against the spread of the disease. University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen sent out an email detailing UA’s response to the outbreak. The response applies to all schools within the university system.

Classes are currently canceled till March 23 as teachers work to find ways to hold all possible coursework remotely or electronically, according to Johnsen’s email.

Anyone traveling to the U.S. from a community that’s experiencing a coronavirus outbreak is barred from the campus, as well as anyone that’s been a recent cruise ship passenger.

All dorm residents are also being required to leave by March 17, all meetings of more than 25 people are being canceled and further gathering prohibitions may be put in place.

“The chancellors and I recognize that these changes will present significant challenges to our students and their families, and our employees,” Johnsen said in the email. “Please know that this decision was made after much deliberation, relying on expert advice from public health agencies and the experiences of other universities nationwide.”

• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757.621.1197 or mlockett@juneauempire.com.

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