PALMER — The Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District is the only large district on the Railbelt that’s bucking a federal requirement for masking on school buses as the school year gets underway this week.
Anchorage School District, the state’s largest, requires masks both in schools and on transportation.
Officials with the Kenai Peninsula and Fairbanks North Star Borough districts aren’t making in-school masks mandatory but are requiring drivers and students to wear them on school buses.
Students attending Mat-Su schools are also under optional mask orders inside buildings.
But school officials here, unlike the two other large districts with in-school voluntary masking policies, are not requiring school bus drivers or student passengers to cover their faces despite a federal order calling for them to do so.
The U.S. Department of Transportation says school bus drivers, including those working in public school districts, and passengers are required to wear masks under a federal Centers for Disease Control order issued earlier this month.
The CDC order doesn’t expressly address school buses, Mat-Su school district public information officer Jillian Morrissey said in an email. The language about buses came only in a “FAQ” on the topic. The district considers that guidance questionable, Morrissey wrote, because the president’s January order requiring the CDC mandate masking on public transportation specifically excluded school bus service.
“The District is seeking further clarification on this matter,” Morrissey wrote.
The district isn’t currently requiring masks under its COVID-19 mitigation plan but if there are any future requirements, they would extend to school bus service, she said.
The federal transportation department did not return several requests for comment Thursday.
Asked if school districts are required to have drivers and passengers wear masks, the state’s chief medical officer said the federal requirement applies to all schools, public and private.
“That is a federal requirement and it’s still in place,” Dr. Anne Zink said during a media briefing Thursday.
Fairbanks North Star Borough School District is requiring masks on buses due to the federal regulations, according to spokeperson Yumi McCulloch. As for any enforcement, the district website refers to the CDC order that says the agency can enforce the order but “does not intend to rely primarily on these criminal penalties but instead strongly encourages and anticipates widespread voluntary compliance ...”
Kenai Peninsula Borough School District student passengers are required to mask and bus drivers are provided six feet of social distancing space, according to spokesperson Pegge Erkeneff.
“They may wear a mask if it does not impose a safety hazard such as fogged glasses or breathing issues that could interfere with the safe operation of the bus,” Erkeneff wrote in an email. “All passengers must wear a face covering when traveling on the bus. Our priority is the safety of our students during transportation to and from school or cocurricular activities.”
In Mat-Su, the district’s overall decision to not require masks in schools was taking fire from some parents this week, despite a district survey taken before school started that showed the majority of families responding opposed mandatory masking.
Masking, vaccination and other COVID-related issues are political hot potatoes in the Mat-Su, the least vaccinated region in the state.
Mat-Su school board members at a meeting two weeks ago briefly debated the state’s authority to require students or staff who come into close contacts with COVID-positive people to go into quarantine, a basic public health step considered a key part of halting the spread of the virus.
Top state health officials planned to participate in a special Zoom session Thursday evening designed for parents of Mat-Su students to address “questions that they may have related to the safe return to in-person learning this school year.”