Starting in January, the Anchorage School District will no longer require universal masking among students, instead leaving it up to parents to decide whether their children should wear face coverings at school.
Superintendent Deena Bishop said COVID-19 numbers at the moment indicate lower virus spread and case counts in the city and district that are trending down. The numbers, combined with other protective actions like vaccines and quick-turn testing in schools, made way for the change.
“Now that the cases are declining, now that our city’s (masking) ordinance is away, we can make a transition, keeping our eyes wide open that the data could change and we could revert back to different protocols,” Bishop said by phone prior to announcing the shift to families by email Thursday afternoon.
The decision bucks federal health guidelines, which recommend universal masking among students in kindergarten through 12th grade to help protect against spread of the coronavirus in school. The policy change is also set to take effect as the potentially more contagious omicron variant spreads globally.
Prior to the start of this school year, the district adopted universal masking among students — a policy that was in place during a major virus surge that ramped up in the summer, killed hundreds of Alaskans and pushed hospitals to the brink this fall.
“We’re simply at a different place right now,” Bishop said.
The city’s mandatory masking ordinance recently ended, which Bishop said means parents are already choosing whether to wear masks in stores and restaurants. And when asked about potential concerns surrounding COVID-19 and holiday travel by students’ families, Bishop cited continued downward trends in case counts following the Thanksgiving holiday last month.
“If risk levels in the community change, we will reassess and may return to required masking,” Bishop wrote in her letter to families.
Bishop, who is set to retire at the end of the school year, said PCR testing in all schools has shown fast turnarounds for students and staff with any sort of symptom and has been key in keeping schools open. She also noted that masks weren’t required during summer school, but an estimated 40% of students and staff in school buildings continued to wear masks anyway.
The district was able to avoid closing schools and widespread outbreaks during the past semester of in-person schooling, she wrote.
The district’s COVID-19 dashboard showed Thursday that several schools had no active cases of the virus while the rest had active case counts in the single digits, usually below three total.
While the omicron variant leaves “unanswered questions,” Bishop said the district has taken other actions to prepare for life with both school and COVID-19, including providing access to vaccines and booster doses.
The masking policy is set to take effect when school resumes Jan. 3. Students riding buses will still have to comply with federal public transportation mandates, which requires masks for passengers and drivers.