Juneau schools add COVID-19 mitigation layers

On Tuesday evening, the Juneau School District Board of Education took action to add two new COVID-19 mitigation layers to the district’s health and safety protocols.

In a unanimous decision, the board approved a new policy requiring weekly COVID-19 testing for unvaccinated staff members and other people paid by the school, including contractors and school board members. Employees who are vaccinated or have had a documented case of COVID-19 in the past 90 days may opt-out of the weekly screening test. Testing begins the week of Oct. 4.

In a second unanimous decision, board members passed a resolution directing Superintendent Bridget Weiss to draft a policy that would allow for surveillance testing of unvaccinated students to help cut down on virus transmission. The district reported 37 positive cases in August and has reported more than 45 as of Sept. 15.

The board will review the student surveillance policy at its October meeting-the same meeting where as many as three new people could join the board. Among the seven people currently seeking seats on the board, three have expressed opposition to the board’s handling of COVID-19 mitigations.

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Adding layers

The newly passed measure and the proposed policy are additional layers of mitigation aimed at helping keep schools open for in-person learning.

“As a board, you have looked at many strategies. Tonight, we are adding a layer of mitigation using testing,” Weiss said, acknowledging that how federal vaccine mandates may affect the school is still being discussed.

Currently, all students under the age of 12 are unvaccinated, as vaccines are not yet approved for that age group.

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

“Mitigation comes in layers,” Weiss said of the student surveillance plan. “Every layer you put on, makes it better. This is one more step.”

Other mitigation measures include masking while inside school buildings, social distancing, and a daily symptom checker for students and staff.

Board member Brian Holst said that data show the mitigations are working — at school and within the community.

“Some of the data we see about how our community is doing recently relative to the rest of Alaska is evidence that these things we do work and keeps students in schools. Our case rates are lower,” he said.

Union reaction

Brian Van Kirk, vice president of the Juneau Education Association, said that the group supports the board’s efforts to protect the health and welfare of the staff. He added that union members want to ensure that neither employees nor the public health trust would be responsible for testing costs.

Weiss explained that employees wouldn’t face out-of-pocket costs for the tests, adding that federal dollars cover any portion of the test not covered by insurance.

She said that the insurance fund’s more significant risk comes from unvaccinated people who could require extensive hospital care. She said the risks must be balanced when considering the policy.

Weiss said that she understands that, as a whole, the staff is highly vaccinated, with numbers generally reflecting the citywide vaccination rate.

According to the City and Borough of Juneau’s COVID dashboard, 73.6% of the total population of Juneau has received at least one dose of vaccine, and 69.8% have completed their vaccine series.

Candidate comments

During the public comment section of the meeting, school board candidate Aaron Spratt peppered the board with questions.

He asked for a definition of what it means to be fully vaccinated, whether teachers who need to quarantine will be given paid leave, and why volunteer testing is not enough.

Weiss said that many of the issues he raised are being addressed but said that the definition of fully vaccinated varies based on the type of vaccine and that the school uses the guidance offered by public health officials to make that determination.

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 vaccines or two weeks after the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

While speaking to the student surveillance proposal, Spratt continued his questions.

He asked if any studies had been conducted to examine the mental health aspects of repeated COVID-19 testing for young children. He also asked how the board would deal with the testing swabs being sterilized with the carcinogen ethylene oxide.

The idea that COVID-19 testing causes cancer has been spread widely on social media sites.

However, according to the Associated Press, “ethylene oxide is a gas commonly used to sterilize medical equipment. It is also used in the sterilization of spices and cosmetics. While it is listed by federal agencies as a carcinogen with long-term exposure, experts say the gas is used only in small amounts to sterilize COVID testing kits and would not present cancer hazard.”

Factcheck.org, Reuters, and other global agencies have also declared the claim false.

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More candidate reaction

On Wednesday, the Empire reached out to each school board candidate and asked how each plans to comply with the new staff testing requirement and general mitigations such as masking at meetings. Here are their verbatim responses. Italics denote a typo correction. Replies appear in the order the answers were provided to the Empire.

Thomas Buzard: “Zoom? Natural selection? Survival of the fittest?”

— Write-in candidate Kyle Scholl: “I will wear a mask at any in-person meetings until the mandate is lifted. The weekly testing makes no sense if you don’t have symptoms. I will not comply to that and will fight that if I’m elected.”

— Current Board President Elizabeth Siddon: “I will comply with all mitigation measures of the School District — required weekly testing (although I am also fully vaccinated!) and I do/will wear a mask when in JSD buildings and for Board meetings.”

Aaron Spratt: “I am a strong advocate in regards to student’s mental health. I am concerned that the mental health of our students is not being accounted for with the potential mandating of these intrusive tests at the October meeting. Has the school board considered the trauma that these repetitive and intrusive tests will inflict on our children (especially young children whom this mandate targets)? I am an advocate for parents, parents should be making these important health decisions (physical and mental) for their child, not the school board. In regards to testing and masking compliance, I will pursue an equitable solution for meeting attendance.”

Ibn Bailey: “I missed the meeting last night but I know this decision was discussed in previous meetings by the board. That being said, I support the board’s decision. I have already received both vaccination shots, wear a mask, and have a mitigation protocol in place at our businesses for our employees. I will continue to wear a mask, social distance in closed spaces, and utilizing any other mitigation strategies at my disposal until it’s no longer necessary for businesses, schools, hospitals, and all those entities that serve the public.”

As of 4 p.m., the Empire had not received a response from candidates Amber Frommherz or Wiljordan V. Sangster. This article will be updated as responses arrive.

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

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