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Mat-Su schools will require face masks among other COVID-19 precautions when classes begin

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The Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District will require face masks for staff, teachers and students in grades 3-12 during the coming school year.

The decision announced Tuesday is a change from the district’s previous policy, which recommended only that children and adults wear a nose and mouth face covering while in public school buildings, according to district spokeswoman Jillian Morrissey.

District administrators met with Alaska chief medical officer Dr. Anne Zink, local public health health officials and physicians and the district’s consulting physician, Dr. Therese Tomasoski. All of them recommended requiring masks, Morrissey said.

“There will be accommodations for students and staff that need them and we are going to be providing more guidance to families and to our employees about those accommodations,” Morrissey said of the district’s new policy.

During a virtual Q&A Tuesday evening, superintendent Randy Trani said students who have disabilities or health issues that make wearing a mask difficult will not be required to wear one. Masks will not be required in athletic programs, but will be required on school buses, he said. The district will also teach students how to properly wear a mask and why it’s important.

“Obviously with 20,000 students in a district, there’s going to be instances where students just forget to wear their mask or don’t understand the need to wear the mask,” Trani said. “Our approach is not going to be punitive to students, it’s going to be educational.”

A health advisory team is overseeing the district’s COVID-19 mitigation efforts. The team, made up of public health officials and district leadership, reviews daily the information and data released by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, she said.

That team will provide the district guidance on how to operate, such as deciding whether the risks of COVID-19 necessitate closing down one school or multiple schools, or if the entire district needs to shift to a blend of in-person and online learning or move to online learning only, Morrissey said.

The new mask requirement is in response to increasing community spread of the coronavirus in Alaska and in the Mat-Su, Trani said. Because the pandemic situation is changing daily, Trani said masks may not be required for the entire school year.

“The only thing I can be certain of is that things are going to change throughout the year,” Trani said. “So, we’re taking the approach that right now masks are required. If things change, masks may not be required.”

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