This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.
As Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced the state’s first case of COVID-19 — a disease caused by a coronavirus that emerged in late 2019 in China — the University of Alaska system and Kenai Peninsula Borough School District both announced Thursday that they would be extending their spring break by another week.
All 42 schools on the Kenai Peninsula will be closed between March 16-20, “to assist with flattening the infection curve, social distancing, and slowing the COVID-19 spread in our diverse communities,” a press release from the district said.
District staff will receive an update about when to report to work by the end of the day Friday. Updates about the district’s response to the new coronavirus can be found on their dedicated district webpage at http://www.kpbsd.k12.ak.us.
The University of Alaska system announced a series of measures in response to COVID-19, including extending spring break by another week, suspending in-person classes and asking resident students to vacate student housing.
Spring break is being extended one week and classes will resume March 23, with most courses being offered through “alternative” methods. Some expectations will be made to hands-on courses and labs. The alternative and online delivery of university courses could extend through the end of the semester in May. These measures are being put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“Few exceptions will be made,” UA President Jim Johnsen said in a Thursday press conference.
Gary Turner, director of Kenai Peninsula College, said staff at KPC will work next week to determine which classes will continue face-to-face. The spring break extension gives staff time to convert their classes into distance learning classes.
“There will be some (course) expectations,” Turner said. “What they all will be at this point, we don’t know. Some of the labs you can not do via distance.”
Students were scheduled to return Monday, but are now being asked to return to their courses, on March 23, most likely through an online course. On Monday, Turner said staff will hang signs on doors and stand by to alert students that classes are not in session.
“There’s going to be a lot of disappointment, a lot of questions,” Turner said. “It’s going to be a very challenging time. It’s the right thing to do, in my opinion. We have to err on the side of caution. The way the virus is rapidly evolving we have to think about the safety of our students and staff.”
University faculty and staff are expected to come back to work as scheduled on Monday unless they are showing symptoms for COVID-19 or are returning from countries experiencing an outbreak.
Students in residence halls are being asked to move out by March 17. Students will be able to retrieve their personal belongings before then, Johnsen said. Some students will be able to stay in residence halls and exceptions may be made for international students, students from rural Alaska or students who do not have an alternative place to stay.
On the Kenai Peninsula College campus, there are 15 students and six residence assistants living in the residence hall.
For students who do not have access to computers, a laptop, or internet connection, the university is planning to keep computer labs open.
“We are aware that not all students have their own equipment so we will be allowing access to computer labs, but exercising social distancing,” University of Alaska Anchorage Chancellor Cathy Sandeen said in Thursday’s press conference. “So, we may have fewer work stations in rooms to make that happen and we will certainly go in and clean the equipment and the rooms more frequently during this time.”
The University of Alaska System is also canceling all events with 25 people or more, effective through the end of the month. University travel will also be suspended. Johnsen said campuses are being cleaned thoroughly as well. Plans for spring commencement are “to be determined,” Johnsen said.
“It’s a tough situation,” Johnsen said. “We are trying to make our way through a very risky possibility if this virus comes to Alaska and if this virus comes to the university. The impact of that would be very, very difficult for us to manage. We do have plans for managing it, but it would be extremely disruptive. On the other hand, we haven’t seen any cases yet.”
Shortly after the university system made their announcements, Anchorage School District announced they would be extending their spring break by another week too.
Impact on tourism
Preventive measures were also announced this week by members of Alaska’s cruise ship industry. Two cruise lines, Princess Cruises and Viking Ocean Cruises, have suspended service. Princess Cruises announced Thursday they are suspending services for 60 days, and all sailings before May 11 are cancelled. Viking Ocean Cruises announced Wednesday they are resuming their operations May 1.
The Viking Orion was set to leave Vancouver April 26 and arrive in Ketchikan April 28, Sitka April 29 and Juneau April 30.
Other cruise lines that frequent Alaska, like Holland America Line, Carnival Cruise Line and Norwegian Cruise Line, have issued advisories and boosted their passenger screening process.
Alaska’s first cruise of the season, the Carnival Spirit, is set to leave Vancouver, Canada, and dock April 22 in Tracy Arm near Juneau.
The first cruises to set sail for the Kenai Peninsula are Viking Ocean Cruises, set to dock in Seward May 5-7. In Homer, Holland America Cruises is set to dock May 12 and then Princess Cruises shortly after on May 15. Whittier’s first ship will be from Princess Cruise docking on May 16.
There are 1,215 cases across the U.S. in 43 other states and 36 total deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. World Health Organization named the COVID-19 disease a global pandemic. The last global pandemic was in 2009 when H1N1, a novel influenza A virus, spread across the U.S. and then the world, according to the CDC. COVID-19 is a relative of the SARS and MERS viruses, which have caused outbreaks in the past. Symptoms for the disease include fever, runny nose, cough and breathing trouble. The elderly and those with weakened immune systems are particularly vulnerable to the disease.