Why I voted against mandatory masks for Anchorage students

The two school districts geographically contiguous to the Anchorage School District, Kenai and Mat-Su, have rejected mandatory masking of students for the coming school year. At the Aug. 3 meeting of the Anchorage School Board, Superintendent Deena Bishop presented her plan for Anchorage schools this fall. It included changing from the completely successful Summer School policy of parent-choice optional masking to essentially full-time mandatory masking of every child while in a school district building. Some case-by-case exceptions will be allowed. Students will not be forced to wear masks while actively doing sports. No longer will parents have the option to choose this health decision for their children. The School Board could have rejected mandatory masking at the Aug. 3 meeting, but my three amendments against it all failed without being seconded. Those were essentially 6-1 votes in favor of no parental choice and mandatory masking.

The Board received hundreds of messages specifically on the masking issue both in support and opposed to mandatory masking. On the night of the meeting, my count was about 20 people testified in support and almost 50 against.

The primary expressed justifications for mandatory masking were support from the American Association of Pediatrics and the Center for Disease Control; the increased risk of the Delta COVID-19 variant; and currently increased COVID-19 case counts and hospitalizations. Additionally, proponents argued that masks have some, however small, ability to reduce COVID-19 transmission, so why not force their use?

The primary oppositions to mandatory masking were that:

1. Parents are the best at deciding personal health choices for their children and not a one-size-fits-all bureaucracy;

2. Typical masks do not work well against COVID-19 transmission;

3. Optional masking has worked successfully all summer in Anchorage Summer School, with only one publicized case out of 9,000 students;

4. Masks are potentially damaging to the physical and mental health of children;

5. The Centers for Disease Control has been so wrong so often and so political they cannot be trusted (the primary justification for the newest CDC mask recommendation was a single Massachusetts event that was not school related, and the school environment has many special safeguards);

6. The World Health Organization does not fully agree with the CDC;

7. Even the CDC reports that fewer than 1 in 200,000 or .005% of children infected have died from COVID-19, which is less than the children who die from influenza (the flu) most years, and we have never mandated masks due to the flu;

8. While the Delta variant is much more contagious, it is no more deadly, and the vaccines we have do a very good job of preventing serious illness;

9. Mandatory masking just will not work for the youngest children, at least those in kindergarten and first grade, and is harmful to them educationally, mentally and physically.

10. The school district’s process for approving exceptions to the masking rules is not working well, and children with special needs are suffering;

11. Some district staff will likely use the guidelines to justify forcing mask-wearing even outside the buildings and in spite of the identified exceptions;

12. Just like last year, because of other non-student-based influences, once a policy is in place, the school district will delay or refuse to change even if the science clearly no longer supports it;

13. Many parents who can afford to or can homeschool so will withdraw their children from ASD if masks are mandatory.

I extensively read and studied the facts and the data and concluded that, on the whole, mandatory masking of all students will do more harm than good for the students of the Anchorage School District. I am especially concerned with increased suicides, mental health damage to our children directly caused by mask mandates, and educational loss. Accordingly, at the Aug. 3 meeting, I proposed three amendments to the policy, all of which failed due to having no supporting second for my motions. No other amendments were proposed. The plan then went into effect without the Board actually voting to adopt it.

My amendments were:

1. That the Board amend the plan to continue the Summer School parent-choice optional masking policy.

It failed for lacking a second.

2. That the superintendent reconsider the plan based on the public testimony.

It failed for lacking a second.

3. That the Board amend the plan to continue the Summer School optional masking policy for kindergarten and first-graders.

It failed for lacking a second.

I hope the superintendent and my fellow board members will reconsider and actively seek alternatives to mandatory masking of all students. One idea a testifier offered to preserve parental choice was to group students into mask and no-mask classrooms. Our community needs to hold the district’s leadership responsible for promptly returning masking choices to parents if Anchorage is not in a high COVID-19 risk condition.

Dave Donley is a lifelong resident of Anchorage, parent of teenage twins, attorney, and served as a state representative and senator for 16 years. He wrote this piece as an individual School Board member and not on behalf of the Anchorage School District, School Board or any appointed or military position he may hold.

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