Craig High School (KRBD file photo)

As a wave of omicron-fueled COVID-19 infections hits Alaska, some schools in the southern panhandle are making changes. 

All students in the Prince of Wales Island community of Craig will learn remotely next week. Craig’s middle and high schools were closed Friday to give teachers time to prepare for distance education. Remote learning started Friday for elementary students. 

Superintendent Chris Reitan says nearly the entire elementary school population was recently exposed to COVID-19. 

“We do have some students who are vaccinated, but because of the large number of unvaccinated and direct contacts, it would have been impossible just to have a handful of kids in school and try to take care of the ones who are remote,” Reitan said in a phone interview Friday. “Then we had a positive case in our high school that impacted a large part of our students as well as staff, and so we would have had a difficult time having enough staff for in-person instruction.”

He says it was “inevitable” that the middle school would soon be affected as well.  

In addition to staffing issues, Reitan says the shift to remote learning also aims to reduce the burden on local health care providers amid a spike in cases. Prince of Wales Island has no hospital and clinics are relatively scarce. 

In-person learning in Craig is scheduled to resume Jan. 17, but Reitan says that could change.  

“It’s going to be dependent (on) how our staff is,” he said. “If we have enough staff that is able to come back, we’ll do in person instruction. If not, then we would potentially have to remain in distance.”

He said the district would make specific decisions for each school. Reitan says Craig schools do not require students to wear masks. 

Meanwhile, Ketchikan’s school district is continuing to hold in-person classes for now. That’s despite a series of reported infections across multiple district schools this week. As of approximately 12:30 p.m. on Friday, the school district’s COVID-19 communications director, Linnaea Troina, said 63 cases among staff and students had been reported during the first week back from winter break, though school district officials emphasize that not all were in school while infectious.

Troina says the district is rolling out a new way to track COVID-19 cases in schools. Starting this Sunday, she says the district will report the number of infections in each school on an online dashboard once a week. 

Also on Friday, the district told parents and staff that people who test positive for COVID-19 will only have to isolate for five days rather than 10 — but only as long as they’ve been fever-free for 24 hours without medication and other symptoms have improved. The change is in line with new federal health guidelines, which have faced criticism from some health experts. 

Ketchikan’s school district has also ramped up coronavirus testing.  

The district is offering free drive-up COVID-19 testing every Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. at Houghtaling Elementary School for students, staff and families.  

The district also rolled out a “test-to-stay” program last month to help unvaccinated staff and students stay in school after exposures. Troina says the district also tests athletes and activity participants regardless of vaccination status on a regular basis. 

Troina says the district’s testing programs are aimed at keeping kids in classrooms. 

Masks have also been mandatory at all Ketchikan schools since August 2020. 

In the Prince of Wales Island community of Klawock, school officials announced Wednesday that five people across all age groups had tested positive for COVID-19. By Friday, the number of positive students was down to three.  

Klawock City School District Superintendent Jim Holien said in an email that the community’s single K-12 school was still operating in person as of Friday and planned to continue. But he said that could change as more information about COVID-19 in schools and the community emerged. 

The Klawock Chieftains basketball team postponed games against the Kake Thunderbirds scheduled for this weekend. The Craig Panthers and Metlakatla Chiefs also postponed this weekend’s scheduled basketball game. 

Representatives from the Southeast Island School District, which covers the remainder of Prince of Wales Island, did not respond to requests for information by Friday afternoon. Neither did Metlakatla’s Annette Island School District. 

School district officials across the region urge anyone with COVID-19 symptoms to stay home.