Mat-Su school is borough’s first to shift to universal masking amid COVID-19 outbreak

PALMER — A coronavirus outbreak at one of Mat-Su’s eight high schools on Tuesday triggered a temporary masking order for students and staff as families throughout the district contend with COVID-related bus route cancellations through the week.

Mat-Su was the state’s largest school district to start this school year without a broad face covering requirement, and the only Railbelt school not to require them on buses, as directed by a federal order.

First Student, the district’s transportation provider, is masking on buses, a district spokesperson said Tuesday. First Student did not return a call for more information.

Anchorage School District is requiring masks in buildings and on buses. As of Tuesday afternoon, COVID-19 cases had prompted one classroom at Birchwood ABC Elementary to shifted to online learning through Sept. 3, according to a district website.

In total, 23 Mat-Su schools were reporting 68 COVID-19 cases by the end of the day Tuesday.

Mat-Su Career & Tech High School, located near Wasilla, is requiring masks after COVID-19 cases shifted that school into the district’s medium risk category. By Tuesday afternoon, the school was reporting 14 cases, according to a district website.

The shift was “due to outbreaks (hotspots) and an increase in community transmission of COVID-19,” the district said in an email to families.

“Please monitor your child for symptoms for the next two weeks. If symptoms develop, have your child self-isolate and get tested,” the email said. “Mat-Su Public Health will be issuing close contact notifications and orders to quarantine. Identified close contacts will be expected to follow all quarantine timelines.”

It wasn’t immediately clear how many students and staff are being asked to quarantine.

A status update was expected no later than Sunday, district officials say.

[Coronavirus outbreaks in US schools force early reversals on in-person learning]

School bus drivers are in such short supply because of COVID-19 cases and exposures that the district was forced to implement a rolling route cancellation system this week. Families are being asked to drop off and pick up students at different schools each day. On Wednesday, route cancellations will take place in Wasilla schools and some in Meadow Lakes.

Nearly all of Alaska’s sequenced cases are linked to the highly infectious delta variant that’s driving up new case counts and surging hospitalizations that threaten to overwhelm the state’s health-care capacity, according to providers.

[‘People are dying’: Mat-Su Regional becomes latest in Alaska to fill with COVID-19 patients]

A district survey earlier this summer -- before the delta variant was in play -- showed a majority of school staff and families opposed masking, school officials say.

The decision to start school with a masking recommendation instead of requirement was prompted by concerns that some families would pull students out of school if they had to wear masks, schools superintendent Randy Trani said during a briefing for families last week. Trani said he expected COVID-19 cases to prompt school-by-school mask requirements as the year got underway.

The district administration is considering another survey asking families about masking, public information officer Jillian Morrissey said Tuesday.

Officials are hearing “every day” about COVID-19, from people with a range of positions on issues like masking and vaccination, Morrissey said.

“We are hearing everything,” she said. “We’re hearing people’s frustrations. We’re hearing their opinions. We are hearing from our families.”