The Anchorage School Board on Tuesday accepted the school district’s plan to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 for the upcoming school year, which includes a requirement for students and staff to wear masks indoors.
The mitigation plan, announced by Superintendent Deena Bishop on Saturday, will go into effect on Aug. 9. With few exceptions, masks will be required for all people inside Anchorage School District buildings, and will be optional outdoors. The district will also continue regularly cleaning classrooms, buses and other facilities. Bishop in her announcement cited both the rise of COVID-19 cases in Anchorage and the delta variant as reasons for the plan.
Most classes begin on Aug. 17.
The school board heard hours of testimony from parents, staff and students at Tuesday’s meeting, much of it anti-mask, although a number of people also spoke in support of wearing them. More than 85 people testified, according to School Board President Margo Bellamy.
The same debate is playing out across the U.S. as the school year begins, following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which says all teachers, staff, students and visitors to K-12 schools — regardless of vaccination status — should wear masks indoors. Bishop, in announcing her plan, pointed to the CDC’s recommendations.
The school board did not vote on whether to approve the school district’s COVID-19 mitigation plan; it has given Bishop the authority to manage the district’s mitigation plan throughout the pandemic.
Attempts from board member Dave Donley to amend the plan and ease mask requirements failed. Donley moved that the board change the plan to continue with the current summer school mask policy, under which masks have been optional. That motion did not receive a second from another board member.
Donley also moved to amend the guidelines to allow optional mask-wearing for kindergarten and first-graders; that motion also did not receive a second from another board member. He said mandatory mask wearing for younger children is “really cruel.”
“It doesn’t make sense for the little kids,” Donley said.
Board member Pat Higgins said “both sides come out behind” when masks aren’t mandatory.
“The mask protects others, it doesn’t protect you,” Higgins said. “So if you go with some people wearing masks and some people not, then the people who want to be protected won’t be protected if the other people aren’t wearing masks, and that’s a lose-lose situation.”
Higgins said his obligation is with the safety of children. He said two of his grandchildren had COVID-19.
“When I see my grandkids sick, it affects me a lot,” Higgins said.
The school board suspended its rules to hear more testimony from the public as parents and community members filled the ASD Education Center. The majority expressed frustration with the mask requirement.
Heather Land told the board she had to quit her job last year “due to ASD’s lack of opening schools.”
“While I’m appreciative that schools are going to be open, it doesn’t make up for the fact that you’re forcing my children to do something that should be a choice of all the parents involved,” Land said. “I don’t agree at all with making children wear masks.”
Some parents who testified said they would send their children to school without a mask, regardless of the board’s decision.
Written public testimony echoed many of the comments made at Tuesday night’s meeting.
“The government or specifically the school district in this case should not be telling parents how to care for their own children,” wrote Robin Marsh. “If I believe it is in the best interest of my child’s health, physically, psychologically, emotionally and spiritually to be mask free then I have that right to let them be so and still receive the public education that my tax dollars pay for.”
Other testimony cited concerns over the delta variant, and noted that vaccines are not available for children under 12 years old.
“The science is clear that the masks work and do not impede our children’s education,” wrote Bethany Burgess. “Yes they’re a pain, but the science continues to be clear that they work in decreasing the spread of COVID-19.”
Superintendent Bishop said they are following CDC guidelines and recommendations to “keep schools open.”
“The direction has always been that we want students’ best interest in mind … our operations are geared towards that,” Bishop said.
Two other nearby Alaska school districts are not requiring masks in most situations. The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District announced a plan that “strongly advises” staff and others who are unvaccinated to wear masks.
The Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District said that masks may only be required if there is a positive case in a classroom or school, but masks will only be recommended if there are “no to minimal” confirmed COVID-19 cases in the previous 14-day period. It plans to close the school building if there is widespread community transmission.