PALMER — Last week, technicians with Capstone began testing over 300 Mat-Su Borough School District athletes for COVID-19 with weekly rapid antigen testing that has been required by the Alaska School Activities Association.
MSBSD Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Reese Everett detailed the requirements set by ASAA in order for MSBSD athletes to compete in any state torment competition in wrestling or soccer. Sports such as baseball, softball and track and field are not required to wear masks during competition or test weekly for COVID-19, but wrestlers and soccer players must complete weekly testing in order to practice and play mask-free.
“All of this is our parents and our guardians have to give their consent in order for their student athlete to be able to participate in these optional activities and so baseball, softball, track and field if our students are outside, so during competition and during practice so if they are outside and they are able to maintain distancing, we are not requiring masks in those activities either. So no antigen rapid testing has not been dictated by our district or ASAA and when they’re outside and able to spread out we’re actually allowing our competitors to engage in their activity mask free,” said Everett. “It’s far from perfect. Through my lens is this an opportunity to again mitigate, certainly not completely eliminate the transmission of this virus and doing so in a way that is safe to be able to tell our students on the field and on the mats that they’re able to practice as well as compete mask free.”
Everett told the school board that following the April 12 vote by the ASAA Executive Board to require the weekly antigen testing in line with the National Federation of High School Sports guidance, MSBSD began testing students last week. All other large school districts previously had testing protocols in place. On April 20, 315 students were tested and 314 negative tests were returned. A positive test does not immediately trigger the contact tracing process, but that student must then receive a PCR test before returning to school activities. The tests are completely free to students, but the district is paying for each test and $60 per hour for staff time, as well as an additional $65 for each PCR test to Capstone.
“When you look at the cost structure, they’re not charging us for supplies but they are charging us for those administrative fees to administer the test and then the hourly fee. I would anticipate and estimate anywhere between $15,000 up to $20,000 for the remainder of the year,” said Deputy Superintendent of Business and Operations Luke Fulp.
Wrestling season is traditionally held in the winter, but was pushed back out of caution. Both wrestling and soccer began their seasons under the same masking protocols that winter sports competed in, but began antigen testing last Tuesday and Thursday. Everett said that the requirement is for two tests in the first week and one test weekly following the first two, and that the testing would likely occur before practice rather than during school as it did last week. Students who have been vaccinated or students who have contracted COVID-19 in the last 90 days do not have to test weekly.
“There is great potential for significant funding from the state in the form of a grant or grants to be able to support districts in covering these costs so that our students are able to participate and so we’re certainly exploring those options,” said Everett. “It also mitigates the potential spread of this virus but you’re absolutely right, it certainly does not eliminate the opportunity just as you described. It’s one day a week and we chose to go that one day a week to be as least disruptive as possible to tour students and our families and the learning day.”
Superintendent Dr. Randy Trani provided his typical slides showing the vaccination rates and infection rates for areas around the state, noting an increase over eight percent of Valley residents who have been vaccinated since he last presented the graphs. Trani said that if the eight percent increase continues, over half the Valley would be vaccinated by June. Trani also posited that a robust data set of weekly athlete testing could provide justification to remove masks in the future.
“One out of 314, if that bears out week after week we could say it doesn’t’ appear that we have spread in the schools at all and that would be the silver lining to this dark cloud of antigen testing,” said Trani.