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Anchorage School Board extends mask requirement to at least Jan. 15

Channel 2 Morning Edition (6 a.m.)
Published: Dec. 20, 2021 at 10:27 PM AKST|Updated: Dec. 20, 2021 at 11:19 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Members of the Anchorage School Board voted on Monday night to reverse Superintendent Deena Bishop’s move to make masking optional in Anchorage schools, and keep the current mask policy in place until at least Jan. 15.

The vote, in which member Dave Donley cast the sole “no” vote, came after hours of discussion at the Monday night board meeting about whether and how to extend the masking policy a little longer.

Bishop had announced last week that, starting Jan. 3 when students return from winter break, masks in the Anchorage School District would be optional rather than mandatory. In a letter to parents, she cited low transmission rates in the school district and the municipality. Bishop also said at the time that the situation would be reevaluated transmission rates rose again, and that if that happened masks could be required again.

After much debate and several failed amendments, the board passed the following language: “It is the sense of the board that our current masking policy remain in effect until at least Jan. 15.”

Board member Andy Holleman, who proposed the motion that was ultimately passed, said that if the current virus transmission trends in Anchorage and the school district continue, he would “be delighted to see the policy go away.” However, he said it’s critical that when families return from winter break, that the school district have enough mitigation measures in place.

“This lets everybody continue doing what we’ve been doing, and what we’ve been doing very well,” Holleman said. “And then it gives us enough weeks after break to see if we’ve got a problem on our hands or not.”

Board members cited the rapid rise of the omicron variant as a concern and a reason to give the district more time after the winter break to make a decision about masking in schools. The omicron variant is now the dominant strain of COVID-19 the U.S., federal health officials reported Monday.

While Bishop acknowledged that announcing that masks would become optional shortly before winter break began may have come as a shock to some and caused some stress, she said the decision to transition the policy to optional was based on COVID-19 metrics. She noted that the community is pretty split on the concept.

“It’s not to put people in danger. It was to face the reality of where we are today, with the ability to make a decision either way.” Bishop said. “… I’m just surprised at what people forgot. But I do understand that hurting people hurt people, and so I see the side of fear for themselves or their families. There’s a lot of hurting going on in our community. And so I have empathy there and I understand that.”

Bishop said that the district has been dealing with the issue of having too many students — sometimes hundreds a week — out of class due to being identified as close contacts, saying that they rarely go on to test positive.

“But I made a determination that we’re going to have testing in every school, and healthy people are going to stay in school whether you’re a teacher or a kid, an aide,” she said. “So we tested our people to stay, and if you had symptoms, yes, you had to go home. You tested and went home. But if you didn’t, you could stay.”

Bishop also noted that the CDC now endorses “test to stay” policies for schools.

School board members argued that as fast as the omicron variant is spreading, the district needs more of a buffer to see how the winter break will affect transmission rates locally, especially with holiday travel. Some also voiced frustration at not having had more of an opportunity to weigh in before Bishop announced the change in the district’s COVID-19 mitigation policy.

“It’s not a good process being followed at all, that we are having to now review it,” board member Pat Higgins said. “… I wish we had had this communication before that.”

In arguing for masking to become optional on Jan. 3 as announced previously by Bishop, Donley argued that Anchorage would be the only major school district in the region still requiring them. He pointed to the school districts in Fairbanks, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and on the Kenai Peninsula, all of which have made masking optional. Donley argued those school districts have not experienced adverse effects since making that call.

Holleman disagreed.

“To say that they didn’t have masking and they didn’t have problems washes by the fact that we had more kids in school,” he countered. “We had our kids actually attending. They may not have shut down buildings and they may not have had a mass outage, but their kids were somewhere else for some reason.”

Board member Kelly Lessens asked the district administration what can be done to make the district’s dashboard for tracking COVID-19 more transparent or contain different types of information, suggesting that it would be important in order for families in order to make their decisions about whether their children should wear masks.

“One thing I’ve heard and read in all these emails we’ve received is that people do want information so that they can better understand the risks maybe for their own family,” Lessens said.

Public testimony was heard for an hour at the start of Monday’s school board meeting as supporters and those opposed shared their opinions regarding the district’s decision to make masks optional.

“I’m here tonight as a teacher and a mother to thank for your decision to make masking a choice,” said Dawn Bockelman, an Ursa Major Elementary School teacher. “It’s been a long time coming and I suppose it’s better late than never.”

Most of the testifiers were either teachers or parents. Those opposed to masks becoming optional on Jan. 3 shared concern over what that would do as students return from holiday break as omicron cases become more prevalent across the country.

“This decision to go mask optional is unacceptable and negligent,” said Keith Harjehausen, a Denali Montessori teacher. “... I wish I was not here advocating, having to advocate, for the safety of my children and a safe place teach.”

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

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