Jan. 14—The Anchorage School District will continue to require masks in its buildings as the omicron variant rages through the community.
In a letter to ASD families, superintendent Deena Bishop wrote that she was extending the school district's mask requirement, which was set to expire Friday. Given how high COVID-19 case counts are, the rule will stay in place with no end date set for now, according to a district spokeswoman.
"Just the spread of the new variant — keeping masks in place is kind of an easy decision to make," Bishop said in an interview Thursday.
By Friday morning, the district's COVID-19 dashboard showed 1,023 currently active cases. That tally is a moving target, with cases adding and dropping regularly depending on infectious periods. Since the start of the school year in August, the district has recorded more than 7,600 cases total.
Active cases were reported at almost every school in the district — which has more than 49,000 students and employees — varying from a single case to as many as 43 in one location. Two classrooms at one elementary were closed for four days due to staffing challenges.
The cases on the dashboard are reported by families and via the district's own testing efforts, and don't necessarily reflect all cases identified in Anchorage.
Across the municipality, the current virus surge has sent case numbers skyrocketing, with more than 3,700 cases identified among Anchorage residents from Friday through Tuesday, according to the most recent data available.
[Alaska shatters COVID-19 case record as omicron adds to growing strain on hospitals]
The current mask requirement for the school district was imposed by the Anchorage School Board, which overruled a decision by Bishop in December to make masks optional after the winter break. When the school board voted to keep the mask requirement in place until Jan. 15, members said they were concerned about the omicron variant and students and families returning from travel over the holidays.
Bishop on Thursday noted that case rates were far lower at the time of her decision to make masks optional than they are now.
She also mentioned the possibility of "a return to temporarily suspended bus routes" over a three-week period if virus staffing shortages affect the school district's transportation operations. She emphasized that that was a contingency plan, and noted that families could find transportation updates on the district's website.
Bishop has previously said that school staffing shortages caused by the virus could result in temporary classroom or districtwide closures. Student attendance has been fluctuating in the mid-80% range, district spokeswoman Lisa Miller said.
"My priority is keeping our schools open and safe with in-person learning and not to revert back to virtual learning," Bishop wrote Thursday. "While I am an advocate of e-learning as a choice, it does not meet all students' learning and well-being."
She said the Anchorage School District is continuing to follow federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines around isolation and quarantine. After some families expressed confusion, Bishop clarified that students and employees who test positive have to stay home for five days after either their first symptom or a positive test, depending on which is earlier.
When that five-day period ends, students and staff can return to school once they haven't had a fever in 24 hours and other symptoms are improving.
Among other updates included in her message, Bishop said the district plans to add more detailed information about COVID-19 cases by grade level in schools, which will reduce both the workload for nurses and how many paper notices go home in favor of "real-time access."
Previously, the district had sent paper notices to families of children when cases occurred in classes but students weren't close contacts, Bishop said.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to add more information about COVID-19 cases within the Anchorage School District.