Wearing a mask will soon become optional for students and staff within the Anchorage School District.
On Feb. 28, the district will shift its policy — which currently requires masking — and allow families to choose whether their students wear masks in the classroom, the superintendent told families and staff in an email Friday.
School district superintendent Deena Bishop in her announcement cited what she described as the negative impacts of masking on students, dropping case counts and the availability of vaccines.
“The risk-benefit that we see with masks — especially with our youth — I think has just tipped the scale,” Bishop said in an interview.
Bishop said she’d heard from teachers that middle school students were “becoming invisible behind their masks” and couldn’t express themselves or share thoughts with others. She also noted that elementary students are missing cues while wearing masks and responses to teachers can be muffled.
“I believe that continued mandatory mask wearing is counter-productive and negatively impacts our students’ education, intellectual development, and emotional well-being,” Bishop wrote in the letter.
Bishop in December had tried to make masks optional starting this semester but was overruled by the school board as the ultra-contagious omicron variant of the virus took hold in late 2021. In mid-January, district officials extended the mask mandate indefinitely.
Since December, COVID-19 cases in the municipality and school district had risen sharply during the omicron wave before starting to decline in recent weeks.
At one point in late January, the district had 1,184 active virus cases, but by Friday, the district’s dashboard showed 93 active cases.
Multiple states nationwide have also opted to lift mask mandates for schools, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends universal indoor masking within schools.
While the mask requirement is dropping, the school district will keep PCR testing in the schools as well as cleaning, ventilation and spacing protocols, Bishop said.
“We haven’t just carte blanche said, ‘Everything’s over, we don’t care about anything,’ ” Bishop said. “What we have done has really taken the availability of stair-stepping down the strongest mitigation to those that are most appropriate.”