Education

Mat-Su goes back to school unmasked, fingers crossed, and hoping to return to ‘normal’

WASILLA — The first day of school in Mat-Su kicked off with the usual chaotic excitement and anxiety but without the masks required last year for most students.

Amid an ongoing resurgence of COVID-19 cases maxing out Alaska’s hospital capacity, the Anchorage School District is requiring masks indoors and on buses, following federal Centers for Disease Control guidance.

Mat-Su, the state’s largest district to operate in-person learning last year, also required masks in school buildings for staff and all students except grades K-2.

Now, as a new school year gets underway, masks are recommended but not required.

And now the school community waits to see what happens next.

“It’s a very fluid year,” said Iditarod Elementary Principal Brian Porcello, whose Wasilla school serves a sprawling area from Willow to Butte. “It’s a live event.”

Few staff and students wore face coverings Wednesday morning at Wasilla High School. In class, students a few hours into the day learned about Steinbeck and plotting positives on a Y axis.

Largely unmasked students filtered into the cafeteria for lunch Wednesday, exchanging high-fives and catching up on their summers.

Students stood or sat clustered in groups. A few couples held hands and cuddled. Loners took their age-old posts at the end of long tables, staring at their phones.

Sophomore Shelby Penyak was an anomaly. She wore a mask — she took it off to eat — and said she got a couple stares as a result. But Penyak lives with her grandparents, who are in their 70s and more medically vulnerable.

“I wear it because my family wants me to,” she said.

Another student came up and asked if they could sit together. She also wore a mask. They added each other on Snapchat.

At a different small round table, junior Brenna Comerford and senior Nicole Abadia chatted with friends, shoulder to shoulder. Last year, Comerford wore a mask all day. It was good to finally have it off, she said.

“To breathe,” Abadia added.

This year does look more normal than last year, Wasilla principal Jason Marvel said Wednesday morning, choosing his words carefully. “I put ‘normal’ in quotation marks, you know?”

More students are back — the school is projecting about 900 this fall — compared to August 2020 when about a third stayed home during the first semester to study via online programs. That dropped to 10-15% the second half of the year, as students returned after struggling without classroom structure, Marvel said.

“There’s a lot of excitement. Teachers are excited. Staff is enthusiastic. Kids are excited just to have that face-to-face interaction,” he said. “Actually seeing your face — I think we’ve lost that personal connection.”

That said, there’s some anxiety among staff too, the principal said. “We haven’t been doing this for a year and a half.”

Mat-Su is the least vaccinated region in the state.

Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District superintendent Randi Trani encouraged broad vaccination and reminded families the pandemic isn’t over yet in a districtwide email Wednesday.

“The best way to put COVID in our collective rear view mirrors is to get vaccinated, so I encourage all of you to spread that message,” Trani wrote. “The only way to really eliminate an infectious viral disease like this is through widespread vaccination. Until we get to that point as a community, we will have to continue to deal with COVID-19.

Masking is “always recommended and encouraged,” he said.

Alaska reported more than 615 new statewide COVID-19 cases on Wednesday alone, the single highest daily tally since December during the last pandemic peak. That included 75 new cases in Mat-Su, 42 of them in Wasilla and 27 in Palmer.

Generally, vaccinated people account for some of the new cases but hospitals say nearly all their really sick COVID-positive patients chose not to get the shot.

In Mat-Su, nearly two thirds of eligible residents are unvaccinated. Just a quarter of younger Mat-Su residents between 12 and 18 are vaccinated, state health officials said during a briefing Wednesday.

As school got underway Wednesday morning, a long line of cars wrapped around a popular drive-up testing site in Wasilla at the recently vacated Sears building off the Parks Highway.

At Iditarod Elementary just outside downtown Wasilla on Wednesday, Porcello’s white board calendar for Wednesday read “kids back” next to a smiley face. The school expects to have more than 400 students this year.

Outside, first-grade students screamed happily from the playground. Inside, they sat at desks with plastic separators between each student and used assigned bathrooms. Bins outside their classrooms held school supplies but also dozens of containers of hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes.

Porcello wore a surgical mask.

“I’m modeling safety for our kids,” he said. “I’m modeling, I’ll call it common good. We’ve got to leverage this situation to stay open. We’ve got to keep our kids in school.”

Mat-Su is the largest district in the state to adopt a voluntary masking policy for the start of this school year. But districts in Fairbanks and on the Kenai Peninsula are also making masks optional, at least for now.

Right now, Mat-Su schools are operating in what the district’s COVID-19 mitigation plan calls the low-risk category: “None to minimal confirmed cases in the last 14 days” within schools. Mat-Su as a region is considered high risk for transmission by the state, however.

Each school comes up with its own mitigation policy, which can include sanitizing protocols and measures to reduce crowding like one-way hallways and staggered class schedules.

The district or school risk status could change if cases start popping up in schools, school officials say. One or two cases won’t make a difference. An outbreak could bring a masking requirement, from a classroom to an entire school, depending on the nature of the cases, district spokeswoman Jillian Morrissey said.

“I know most folks will be relieved to hear that masks are optional, but I want to manage expectations that they may not be gone at every school every day,” Trani wrote in Wednesday’s email, acknowledging others may be concerns masking is optional during low-risk status levels.

The district’s health advisory team, which started meeting daily on Wednesday, “will monitor cases and adjust schools from recommended mask wearing to required mask wearing as conditions dictate at each individual school,” he wrote.

Meanwhile, he continued, the district is relying on parents and families to monitor children for symptoms, keep sick students home, and get tested for COVID at the first sign of any illness: “It is my hope that, collectively, we can all get behind the simple idea of keeping each other safe by not attending school if you are sick and making sure that if you are sick it is not COVID.”

Reporter Annie Berman contributed to this story.

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