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Unalaska schools require masking as island sees surge in COVID-19 cases

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Hannah Vowell
Superintendent Swint said Wednesday morning at least 13 Unalaska students have either tested positive for the virus or been exposed by a household member.

Unalaska students and staff must wear face masks again in school buildings amidst a surge in COVID-19 infections on the island.

The Tuesday decision from Unalaska City School District officials came on students’ second day back from winter break. The masking rules took effect Wednesday.

Superintendent Robbie Swint Jr. said the masking requirements – and the district raising its COVID-19 risk threshold to medium – stems from an increase in the virus among community members.

It's nothing personal,” Swint said. “We're looking at the whole school district. And we're trying to keep in-person school – that’s our main concern.”

As of Wednesday morning, the city reported a total of 46 current active cases of the virus, 26 of which are considered community-acquired. The rest are among fishing industry workers. Clinic officials said local wastewater testing is also showing high case numbers and things are likely to get worse.

Across the country – and in Alaska – COVID-19 cases are again surging, driven by the more-transmissible omicron variant. Clinic leadership said the on-island cases are very likely the new variant.

“We're sort of a small reflection of what's happening now in the Lower 48, and, quite frankly, in Anchorage,” said Will Rodgers, interim CEO of the Iliuliuk Family and Health Services clinic. “But the thing that impresses me is that the community, the city, schools and industry have worked hard together to mitigate the effect on the community, and I see that continuing.”

Superintendent Swint said Wednesday morning at least 13 Unalaska students have either tested positive for the virus or been exposed by a household member, and have been sent home to quarantine for five days.

He said no staff members had yet tested positive. But he said one staff member and five students were asked to leave after refusing to comply with the mask mandate.

The district will continue to follow its current mitigation plan, according to Swint. The only difference is that school administration will work with local health officials to make decisions, rather than consulting with the island’s Emergency Operations Center, as it had previously.

The EOC “stood down” last week after Unalaska’s Emergency Declaration, which gave the city the authority to mandate protective measures, expired on New Year’s Eve.

The roughly 30 community-acquired cases reported by the city Wednesday would have put Unalaska in the “substantial” category, which was the third highest category in the four-level system that expired with the New Year.

However, Rodgers said a portion of the EOC, including the city manager, mayor and clinic leadership, plans to meet on Jan. 11.

“We're working very hard to make sure that we have adequate staff on the island to work through ‘A’ season and to deal with whatever takes place within the community,” Rodgers said. “And obviously, we're working well with all aspects of the community to make sure that we bring this under control again.”

School administrators are documenting which students have been sent home to quarantine and when they will be able to return to school, Swint said.

He said he hopes the mask requirement will help bring the district’s infection numbers down and keep staff and students safe.

“We're hoping going back to masks being required [will] kind of calm things down,” Swint said. “We had about 15 cases back in October with our student population, and we were able to survive, because we were ‘masks required,’ and we were socially distanced.”

While he is hopeful numbers will drop, Swint said the district is still prepared to move to home-based learning.

“If numbers get to that point, and we have to go to home-based [learning], the teachers need to be prepared to have their lessons – however they’re doing [them] – ready and available.”

As of now, the district isn’t doing any active contact-tracing, according to Swint. He said both the elementary and high school principals visited each of their classrooms advising students to take precautions and stay home if they are feeling sick.

As far as preventative testing goes, Swint said the student athletes are the only ones actively getting tested.

The Unalaska school board will meet Thursday at 4 p.m. for a special meeting to discuss the district’s mitigation plan.

Hailing from Southwest Washington, Maggie moved to Unalaska in 2019. She's dabbled in independent print journalism in Oregon and completed her Master of Arts in English Studies at Western Washington University — where she also taught Rhetoric and Composition courses.
Hope McKenney is a public radio news director, reporter, producer and host based in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska.
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