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Anchorage School District extends mask requirement for staff, students

Published: Jan. 13, 2022 at 4:22 PM AKST|Updated: Jan. 13, 2022 at 5:40 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The Anchorage School District has extended its requirement that masks be worn by staff and students, as the omicron variant continues to spread and is causing COVID-19 cases within the community to rise.

The district’s mask requirement, which was set to expire on Friday, is being extended, according to a letter sent out to parents by Superintendent Deena Bishop. The letter does not include a set expiration date.

“The total new cases per 100,000 persons in the past seven days was 2,210 as of January 12,” Bishop wrote in the letter. “For context, this number was hovering close to 100 when my decision was initially made last month to provide for parent directed mask use.”

Bishop had previously sought to end the mask requirement early in January and make masking optional, but it was extended to Jan. 15 when the Anchorage School Board voted to overrule that date. At the time, school board members cited concern over the rapid spread of the omicron variant, especially as families were returning to Alaska from holiday travel.

In an interview Thursday, Bishop said staffing shortages are also plaguing the district with between 12-15% of the district workforce out in recent days. With substitutes in short supply, district employees are shifting to cover absences whenever they can, including Bishop herself, who said she filled in as an elementary school P.E. teacher earlier in the week. Bishop said her top priority is to keep schools open but it’s a situation that is constantly in flux.

“Children need them, our families need them, and our community needs our school doors open,” she said. “There will come a time though, if we don’t have the people to, I would have to make that call.”

Bishop said if schools don’t have the staff to operate safely, it’s possible they could close for a day or two, adding that she would not recommend returning to online learning.

On Thursday evening, the district’s case dashboard showed more than 1,000 active COVID-19 cases in Anchorage schools. It also showed active cases in a majority of schools across the district.

One area that may see changes sooner rather than later, is bussing. District Transportation Director Heather Philp said COVID-19 is taking a toll on drivers, on top of the hiring issues that have led to driver shortages. Philp said it’s possible they may have to start temporarily suspending routes like they did last fall if the situation doesn’t improve and parents should be prepared.

“This is kind of our heads-up for families, we want to give them at least a couple of days notice if we are going to implement this COHORT,” she said. “We want them know that if they are looking at the website and they see they are in a COHORT, they should probably go ahead and look at a prep just in case it does happen.”

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

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