Anchorage School Board overrules superintendent, extends mask mandate to Jan. 15

The Anchorage School Board has voted to keep the school district’s mask policy in place until at least Jan. 15, overruling a decision by the superintendent to make masks optional when students return to classrooms after the holidays.

All school board members except Dave Donley voted in favor of the extension.

School board member Pat Higgins said he was disappointed by Superintendent Deena Bishop’s announcement, citing the rise of the highly infectious new omicron variant and the fact that many Alaskans remain unvaccinated.

“When this announcement was done, everybody said this was going to blow up,” Higgins said. “The numbers said January, February were going to be the high point.”

School board members also discussed the risk associated with students and their families returning from travel over the holidays.

“We’re really talking about two weeks,” said member Andy Holleman, who made the motion. “I know it’s a month off into the future, but the reality is we’re talking about kids wearing masks for two weeks while we see what comes back from winter break.”

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The district’s mask policy, in place since the beginning of the school year, requires all people in district buildings to wear masks, with few exceptions. Like the broader mask emergency ordinance for the city that the Anchorage Assembly approved in October and then rescinded this month, it has drawn furious pushback from parts of the community.

“I think we’ve had the mask mandate too long this year already,” Donley said at the meeting, noting that many private schools in Anchorage and nearby Alaska school districts have not required masks.

“We’re standing out there pretty much on our own for this part of Alaska,” Donley said.

Public testimony ahead of the vote was mixed, though the majority of speakers asked the board to keep mask measures in place and questioned the logic of repealing it.

“It’s extremely disappointing to see that while other districts in the country are making the choice to move to online learning with the looming omicron variant, ASD has chosen to remove its most effective mitigation strategy,” said South High School sophomore Reed Davidson. “Masks are the most effective way to prevent transmission of COVID, which is precisely why ASD has not had any major outbreaks.”

“We know that the schools are a petri dish,” said Roz’lyn Wyche, a mother of five who works in the district’s special education program. She said ASD’s announcement of the policy change to voluntary masking was inadequately communicated to educators.

“A decision like this right before winter break really sucks,” Wyche said.

Still, some of those who testified were in favor of an earlier switch to voluntary masking.

“I still consider this a big win,” said parent and Ursa Major Elementary teacher Dawn Bockelman, who said she had wanted a voluntary policy since the start of the school year.

At the meeting, Bishop said her announcement last week to remove the mask requirement was not driven by community pressure.

“Either the left or the right have accused me of politics and I want to share that it’s just not true,” Bishop said.

Bishop had previously kept the mask requirement for the school district in place despite urging from Mayor Dave Bronson to remove it.

“Our community is very split on this,” Bishop said at the meeting. “... We never stop adjusting and looking and figuring things out for a community that is quite divided. Education is our primary goal. We want schools to stay open.”

Daily News reporter Zachariah Hughes contributed.