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As COVID-19 shutters several schools in the Mat-Su, district maintains hope for success with mitigation efforts

Superintendent says pivoting will continue as pandemic progresses
Undated shot of MSBSD headquarters.
Undated shot of MSBSD headquarters.(none)
Published: Feb. 6, 2021 at 12:59 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Five schools in the Mat-Su Borough School District were closed this week as district officials work to mitigate the effects of the virus on MSBSD staff, students and their families. A sixth was also listed as being under a short-term closure as of late Friday night.

“We’ve already gone through this several times,” said MSBSD Superintendent Randy Trani on Friday afternoon. “We just watch and respond. So far, the cases across my phone today are less than yesterday. If that continues through the weekend, maybe this was just a small rise in community level, and it will be gone. Or maybe it will accelerate, like what we saw in November and early December.”

Late last year, the district closed all of its schools for a three-day period in an effort to stop any spread back then. The move was strategic, Trani said, with the closures taking place next to Thanksgiving break.

The past week’s closures are due to both positive coronavirus cases and potential close contacts within five different schools, including Career & Tech High School, Colony High School, Colony Middle School, Wasilla High School and Pioneer Peak Elementary, which were closed through Friday but are expected to reopen next week. Palmer High School was added to the district’s closure list Friday night after limits on activities were announced there via a school social media account the day before.

The root source of the spike in the case count, Trani said, could be community spread, but may also be attributed to new policies related to in-school activities. For example, for the past month or so, mask-wearing has not been required for vigorous activities, including those held indoors.

“If the borough’s numbers don’t go up, then we’re going to need to look internally pretty hard and decide, okay, what have we done different this time than in previous instances,” he said, noting a delay in counts for the borough and state, as they go through more hands before being made public. “It may just be wide community spread, but one of our working hypotheses is that what we have now is inside sports, where we relaxed the mask requirement recently. If this is just a spike for [the school district], that we have caused, then most likely that will be the case.”

Trani also said Friday that he did not have the total number of close contacts on hand, but that there were 180 potential close contacts at a single school.

“Those are different from close contacts,” he noted, “since public health identifies ‘close contacts.’”

The most recent public report from the district increased by eight cases on Friday night, currently totaling 102 total cases over the past seven days, with 126 confirmed cases reported in the past two weeks. That’s up from the numbers detailed in the previous report, released Thursday and showing 114 new confirmed cases identified in the past 14 days, with 94 reported in the past week, as stated by Trani.

The district’s daily summary report also showed late Friday that of the six schools that were closed at all this past week, Wasilla High is expected to reopen Monday, but the Career & Tech High, Colony High, Colony Middle & Palmer High buildings will be closed that day. Pioneer Peak Elementary building will be closed through Wednesday, Feb. 10, according to the same report.

Some Anchorage School District classrooms are also closed because of concerns over potential exposure. According to the ASD closure tracking site, schools or sections of schools may be shut “due to a student or staff member with a confirmed positive COVID-19 test, close contacts in a classroom, or a combination of both.” ASD records don’t show any full building closures as of Friday evening, though eight schools have closed at least one classroom each since Jan. 27 and transitioned those students to online learning.

As of this past Monday, six ASD schools had recorded positive cases since the start of classes, with some students returning to schools two weeks before that.

ASD has also now reported 686 confirmed cases since Sept. 1, 2020. Forty-three of those were considered active as of Friday. Unlike the MSBSD, ASD does not consistently track 14- or 7-day case counts, according to an email from ASD Director of Communications Alan Brown.

You may access the ASD COVID-19 summary webpage by clicking here.

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