Juneau Schools Add COVID-19 Containment Layers
On Tuesday evening, the Juneau School District Committee took action to add two new layers of COVID-19 containment to the district’s health and safety protocols.
In a unanimous decision, the board approved a new policy providing weekly COVID-19 tests for unvaccinated employees and other school-paid individuals, including contractors and school board members. Employees who are vaccinated or who have had a documented case of COVID-19 in the past 90 days can opt out of the weekly screening test. Testing begins the week of October 4th.
In a second unanimous decision, the board members passed a resolution instructing Superintendent Bridget Weiss to draft a policy that would allow surveillance testing of unvaccinated students to curb virus transmission. The district reported 37 positive cases in August and reported more than 45 as of September 15.
The board will review guidelines for monitoring students at its October meeting – the same meeting where up to three new people could join the board. Of the seven people currently seeking a seat on the board, three have spoken out against the board’s handling of COVID-19 containment.
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The newly adopted measure and proposed directive are additional mitigation measures designed to help keep schools open to face-to-face learning.
“As a board member, you looked at many strategies. Tonight we’re adding another layer of mitigation through testing, ”Weiss said, admitting that there is still some discussion about how federal vaccination regulations could affect the school.
Currently, all students under the age of 12 are unvaccinated as vaccines are not yet approved for this age group.
Since classroom training began in August, local elementary schools have reported at least one case on most days. The infections have resulted in quarantines of students and some suspension of personal learning for class to enable contact tracing.
“Mitigation comes in shifts,” Weiss said of the students’ surveillance plan. “Every layer you put on makes it better. That is a further step. ”
Other mitigation measures include masking in school buildings, social distancing, and daily symptom control for students and staff.
Board member Brian Holst said the data shows the remedies are working – in the school and in the community.
“Some of the data we’re seeing about how our community is doing compared to the rest of Alaska recently shows that these things we do work and keep students in schools. Our case numbers are lower, ”he said.
Brian Van Kirk, vice president of the Juneau Education Association, said the group supports the board’s efforts to protect the health and well-being of employees. He added that union members want to make sure that neither employees nor the public health service are responsible for the cost of testing.
Weiss stated that there would be no cost to staff for the tests, adding that federal funds will cover any part of the test that is not covered by insurance.
She said the greater risk of the insurance fund comes from unvaccinated people who may need extensive hospital care. She said the risks need to be weighed when looking at the policy.
Weiss said she understood that staff were highly vaccinated overall, with the numbers generally reflecting the citywide vaccination rate.
According to the City and Borough of Juneau COVID dashboard, 73.6% of the total Juneau population have received at least one dose of vaccine and 69.8% have completed their vaccine series.
During the public comment section of the meeting, school board candidate Aaron Spratt patted the board with questions.
He asked for a definition of what it means to be fully vaccinated, whether quarantined teachers get paid vacation, and why voluntary testing isn’t enough.
Weiss said many of the issues he raised are being addressed, but said the definition of fully vaccinated varies depending on the type of vaccine and that the school is using health agency guidelines to make that decision.
According to the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, someone is fully vaccinated two weeks after their second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or two weeks after the Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine.
As he spoke to the student surveillance proposal, Spratt continued his questions.
He asked if studies had been done to look at the psychological aspects of repeated COVID-19 tests in young children. He also asked how the board would deal with the sterilization of the test swabs containing the carcinogenic ethylene oxide.
The idea that COVID-19 tests cause cancer has gotten widespread on social media sites.
However, according to the Associated Press, “Ethylene oxide is a gas commonly used to sterilize medical devices. It is also used in the sterilization of spices and cosmetics. Although it is listed as a long-term exposure carcinogen by federal agencies, experts say the gas is only used in small amounts to sterilize COVID test kits and is not a cancer risk.
Factcheck.org, Reuters and other global agencies have also declared the claim to be false.
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More candidate reactions
On Wednesday, the empire reached out to each school board candidate asking how each would like to comply with the new requirements for staff testing and general attenuations like masking at meetings. Here are their literal answers. Italics indicate a typo correction. The answers appear in the order in which the answers were submitted to the Empire.
– Thomas Busard: “Zoom? Natural selection? Will the fittest survive? ”
– Enrollment candidate Kyle Scholl: “I will wear a mask at all face-to-face meetings until the mandate is canceled. The weekly test doesn’t make sense if you don’t have symptoms. I will not comply with this and fight against it if I am elected. “
– Current Chief Executive Officer Elizabeth Siddon: “I will follow all school district mitigation measures – required weekly tests (although I am also fully vaccinated!)
– Aaron Spratt: “I am a strong advocate for student mental health. I am concerned that the mental health of our students is not being considered in the potential ordering of these intrusive tests at the October meeting. Has the school board taken into account the trauma these repetitive and intrusive tests will inflict on our children (especially young children targeted by this mandate)? I’m an advocate for parents, parents should make these important health decisions (physical and mental) for their child, not the school board. In terms of test compliance and masking compliance, I will strive for an equitable solution for attending meetings. ”
– Ibn Bailey: “I missed the meeting last night, but I know that this decision has been discussed by the board in previous meetings. In this respect I support the decision of the board of directors. I have already received both vaccinations, am wearing a mask and have a reduction protocol for our employees in our factories. I will continue to wear a mask, indoor social distancing, and all other mitigation strategies at my disposal until it is no longer required for businesses, schools, hospitals, and any public service facility.
By 4 p.m. the Empire had received no response from candidates Amber Frommherz or Wiljordan V. Sangster. This article will be updated as responses are received.
• Contact reporter Dana Zigmund at email@example.com or 907-308-4891.