PALMER — Just two days into the new year, there are already more than two dozen COVID-19 cases in Mat-Su schools.
District officials did not initially require masking in buildings as the school year began this week, unlike Anchorage School District which is requiring face coverings inside school and on buses.
Instead, masks are optional though recommended. Few staff and students were wearing them at Wasilla and Colony secondary schools when school started Wednesday.
Now Mat-Su school district superintendent Randy Trani says it’s likely masks will be required soon, at least within some schools, given the highly transmissible delta variant accounting for surging case numbers. There were 14 schools reporting a total of 28 cases Friday morning, according to the district website.
Once schools start reporting outbreaks, the district “will reinstitute masking,” Trani said during a parent forum with state health officials Thursday evening. “We anticipate that’s going to happen quickly given what’s going on in the first two days of school.”
The issue is politically charged in this conservative-leaning Republican stronghold. A June survey of families and staff showed most respondents opposed masking, though that was before the delta variant drove COVID-19 cases back up toward winter’s peak levels and packed hospitals full for weeks on end.
Several Mat-Su school board members have been openly skeptical about masking in general. The board earlier this month told Trani they had one goal this year: keep schools open for in-person learning. They just voted to give him a $20,000 bonus for doing so last year.
Now COVID-19 cases are rising around the state and in Mat-Su, the least vaccinated region in Alaska. Just 19% of student-aged residents from 12 to 18 are fully vaccinated, according to state data. About a third of Mat-Su residents 12 and up, including adults, are fully vaccinated.
During the forum Thursday evening, state health officials including Dr. Anne Zink, the state medical officer and Mat-Su school parent, implored district families to get vaccinated and encourage students to mask up.
Dr. Thomas Quimby, a parent with two children in local schools who directs the Mat-Su Regional Medical Center emergency department, joined the group still emotionally raw after coming off a Thursday morning shift seeing extremely ill, unvaccinated COVID-19 patients.
As he walked out of the ER, a COVID-positive woman in her 20s came in with critically low oxygen saturation levels, Quimby said. She was bound for a ventilator.
He’d been putting breathing tubes in patients almost every shift, he said. The only reason the hospital’s 16-bed ICU wasn’t full is because patients are dying and opening beds up.
“I wish that some time you could come and stand with me over a patient who is taking some of their last breaths and they have an oxygen level of 20% like the 40-year-old father I put a breathing tube in yesterday. Me standing over him is probably the very last thing this man will ever see in his life,” Quimby said. “And that is devastating. It’s tragic. I just can’t even describe what it feels like to be part of that. And to know that based on all the data being presented ... this is a vaccine-preventable illness.”
Alaska Public Media published the full transcript of Quimby’s six-minute presentation.
Zink cited “humbling data” that indicates 70% to 90% of Mat-Su students who haven’t already had COVID-19 and aren’t vaccinated may get the virus by the end of the semester. Vaccinated students don’t have to quarantine if they’re close contacts of COVID-positive students, which could keep more in school, she said. Unmasked, unvaccinated students are asked to stay home for 10 days.
Right now in Mississippi there are already 20,000 students in quarantine after the first week of school.
Last year the district required masks in buildings. That held down spread in most classrooms and allowed schools to stay open, Zink said.
“Masks work,” she said. “Last year kids used them and there was very little transmission.”
This new version of the virus is totally unpredictable and attacks younger people who are otherwise healthy, though not necessarily children, health officials and physicians said during Thursday night’s forum. But infected students can bring the virus home to vulnerable households, they said.
A number of parents participating in the forum asked why the district wasn’t already requiring masks.
As the year started, a number of frustrated parents sent Trani emails asking that question and why the district wasn’t following public health protocols in general.
“Sadly, we are working in an environment that is not completely ‘governed’ by logic and scientific understanding of the natural world,” the superintendent responded to one Susitna Valley parent. “I used the word ‘Governed’ purposefully because as you noted we live in (the) Valley with elected officials who operate based on a political world view more so than a natural.”