Anchorage School Board OKs updated COVID-19 mitigation plan for district

The Anchorage School Board meets on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021 in Anchorage, Alaska.
The Anchorage School Board meets on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021 in Anchorage, Alaska.(Jeremy Kashatok/Alaska's News Source)
Published: Aug. 3, 2021 at 6:21 PM AKDT|Updated: Aug. 3, 2021 at 11:39 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - With two weeks until Anchorage School District students return to school, the Anchorage School Board did not challenge an updated mitigation plan put together for the school district — one that includes full, regular class schedules and mask wearing for staff and students indoors.

Superintendent Deena Bishop previously released the updated mitigation plan. It was discussed by the school board during a work session before Tuesday’s school board meeting, and Bishop presented the plan during the regular meeting along with Chief Operating Officer Tom Roth.

The measure was not an action item, meaning the school board did not need to vote to approve it. The school board has the power to direct the superintendent to reconsider or amend the recommendations she presents to them.

Board member Dave Donley made a few different motions asking the board to direct Bishop to amend the mitigation plan — first to make indoor mask wearing optional, then to ask Bishop to reconsider her plan, and finally to amend the plan to exempt kindergarteners and first graders from the mask requirement — but the motions all failed for lack of a second.

The focus of this year’s mitigation plan is on how to continue accelerated learning in person, while also providing activities, clubs, and social learning opportunities, according to a July 31 update from Bishop to school district employees and families. The district’s updated mitigation plan focuses on universal masking for students, staff and visitors, keeping the district symptom-free, cleaning and disinfecting, and keeping the students in a learning environment, according to Bishop’s letter.

The plan states the district will continue to provide COVID-19 testing to symptomatic students and staff either through nurses or a contracted provider, with parental consent. The district will also continue providing vaccines to eligible students, with parental consent, through a contracted provider.

The provision to have staff and students wear masks while indoors is a departure from the district’s policy for its summer school program, which has masking as optional. In their comments, school board members cited the rising COVID-19 cases in Anchorage as a reason to return to indoor mask wearing. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week came out with updated guidance recommending students and staff wear masks while indoors regardless of vaccination status.

According to the school district, from June to August around 9,000 students attended some kind of in-person learning, and the district had only 10 confirmed COVID-19 cases and no known spread.

“We don’t want to be the center of spread or additional spread in Anchorage,” said board member Andy Holleman in defense of the inclusion of indoor mask wearing in the updated plan.

Masks will be optional in outdoor settings, like recess and outdoor sporting events. For indoor sporting events, athletes will be required to wear masks when they are on the sidelines.

Protesters hold signs outside of an Anchorage School Board meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021 in...
Protesters hold signs outside of an Anchorage School Board meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021 in Anchorage, Alaska.(Marlise Irby/Alaska's News Source)

According to Bishop and Roth, fully vaccinated individuals and students who are properly masked will not need to quarantine if they are identified as a close contact with someone who has COVID-19. Bishop said during the meeting this is an attempt to keep more kids in school.

School staff who are close contacts of someone with COVID-19 don’t need to quarantine if they are fully vaccinated, but staff who test positive will need to leave school to quarantine. Roth noted that staff will have to use their own leave time to do this.

The board suspended its meeting rules to allow more public testimony on the updated mitigation plan before moving on to the rest of the meeting, which ended just before 11 p.m. Parents, teachers and community members testified for hours to their desire for mask wearing indoors to be optional for students. Board President Margo Bellamy addressed several angry outbursts from attendees throughout the meeting, saying she would have to clear the room if they did not stop.

Many pointed out that some students have extenuating medical circumstances that make wearing masks difficult. Board member Kelly Lessens said it’s important to accommodate students with medical needs. She asked whether the plan could be amended to include a specific acknowledgement of medical conditions when it comes to mask exemptions.

It’s written into the plan that “Some exceptions may apply for educational purposes and for cohorting people who are fully vaccinated.” Bishop explained during the meeting that there are many potential exceptions to wearing a mask. Some are medical, others legal, and still others for educational purposes.

She also clarified that the school district will not be putting students into cohorts, but that the updated plan follows U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that people who are cohorting, or gathering together, who are fully vaccinated, do not need to wear masks. The updated plan also calls for 3-6 feet of distance to be maintained in classrooms and district buildings to the extent possible, “but should not exclude students from in-person learning to keep a minimum distance requirement.”

Many who testified at the meeting asked for the mitigation plan to be reconsidered. Holleman pointed out that the district has reconsidered its policies in the past, like when it decided mask wearing would be optional for summer school.

“I think it’s open for reconsideration all the time,” he said.

Holleman said just a month ago, he envisioned students going back to school in a much more normal way.

“While it’s deeply disappointing, I understand why we’re doing what we’re doing and I want the superintendent to continue to have the authority to make those decisions as we go forward,” he said. “I’m hoping by the middle of August or September we’ll be looking at a different situation and things can be relaxed, but at the moment everything is trending the wrong way.”

Lessens, too, said she isn’t in favor of a mask policy long term.

“I support precaution as we move forward in this COVID moment, but I see it as a moment,” she said. “I cannot support a forever mandate.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with additional information.

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