Mat-Su school board fields calls for and against masks, COVID mitigation measures

Parents and community members attend the Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021 meeting of the...
Parents and community members attend the Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021 meeting of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District's school board in Palmer, Alaska.(Jeremy Kashatok/Alaska's News Source)
Published: Sep. 2, 2021 at 1:52 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Though they weren’t on the agenda, masks in schools were on the minds of many who attended Wednesday’s meeting of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District’s school board in Palmer.

Several parents, community members and students testified to the school board, many saying they want more mitigation efforts on the part of the school district to protect students as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to rise. Others emphasized that they wanted masking in schools to be a personal choice, and several people gathered and held signs to that effect outside the school board meeting before it started.

The Mat-Su school district has a mitigation plan that does not require masks, but rather recommends them, as long as schools are in the low-risk category for virus transmission. As soon as a school experiences increased cases or outbreaks and moves into the medium-risk level, the mitigation plan that was approved for the start of this year states that masks can be required.

As of Wednesday, the district’s COVID-19 data-tracking dashboard shows that 10 schools are at medium risk, and masks are now required in those schools to varying degrees. For some, masks are required for the whole school while in others, they are required for certain grades or classrooms.

There are two schools, Butte Elementary School and Glacier View School, which have temporarily closed to in-person education because of COVID-19.

Superintendent Randy Trani addressed several aspects of how the district is handling COVID-19 during Wednesday’s meeting. In the case of Butte Elementary, he said the district did not pick up in the increasing cases and make the choice to institute mask wearing quickly enough.

“Our trigger finger was not sensitive enough on putting the masks in and it got away from us,” he said.

Trani shared data that Butte Elementary had 50 cases identified by Wednesday, and the district’s dashboard shows it had 27 in the last seven days. Trani said there are examples of other schools, like Dena’ina Elementary School, where masks were put in place in a timely manner and cases have actually started trending down.

During his report to the school board, Trani said that since the start of school a few weeks ago, the Mat-Su school district has had a total of 426 COVID-19 cases. In all of the prior 2020-21 school year, there were 1,479 cases.

“It’s just different this year,” he said.

In total, Traini reported to the school board that 87% of students are learning in person so far this year compared to 13% of students learning remotely. During a presentation to the board, Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said that in-person learning “is the place where kids learn best,” but also said mitigation measures like getting vaccinated and wearing masks while indoors are the best way to keep that in-person learning safe and to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the Mat-Su.

“The biggest take home is masks work,” she said.

Trani also told the school board that the district looked into data on students who withdraw from schools. It showed that the number of students withdrawing so far has not increased when schools have had to move into medium risk and masks are required.

“We aren’t seeing lots of kids leave when we have to do those operational zone changes,” Trani said.

Zink reiterated during her presentation the federal order by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that requires masks on public transportation, which includes school buses. The Mat-Su school district is the only large school district in the Railbelt region of the state that is not requiring masks on school buses despite that federal order.

In an emailed statement, district Chief Information Officer Jillian Morrissey said the original CDC order does not specifically address school buses as public transportation. A Frequently Asked Questions section published by the CDC clarifies that the rule for masks on public transportation does include school buses from both public and private schools. Morrissey said in the statement that the FAQ is considered to be guidance.

“... but its legitimacy is questionable because President Biden’s January 21, 2021 Executive Order 13998, requiring the CDC to mandate the wearing of facemasks in or on public transportation, specifically excludes school bus service in the definition of public transportation,” she wrote.

Morrissey said the district is looking for further clarification on the order. She did clarify that for the 10 Mat-Su schools that are currently in the medium-risk level, masks are required on the buses for those schools.

Trani said during Wednesday’s meeting that when it comes to mitigation measures in schools, there’s no one solution that’s going to please everyone.

“We’re going to deal with COVID, we’re going to give it the attention that it needs,” he said, but added that he hopes future school board meetings will focus more on school operations and learning.

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