Cases are rising but masks to remain optional for students, says Anchorage School District

A girld in a purple tank top gets a shot from a white man in a red masik
Lucy Wheat gets her first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday, May 13, 2021 (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

There are still several weeks before school starts again, but as coronavirus cases climb across Alaska, debate about whether to require mask-wearing, especially for younger children, is starting to bubble among experts, families and school officials. 

Currently, mask wearing on school grounds is optional for all students and staff in the Anchorage School District, including those who are unvaccinated by choice or because they are too young to access vaccines. The policy was made for the summer school program, but a district spokesperson said it will likely continue into the fall.

The district strongly encourages people who are unvaccinated to wear masks, the policy says.

RELATED: Alaska returns to high alert level as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations climb

The district has traditionally followed CDC recommendations related to the virus, but this is a slightly looser policy than what the CDC recommends for schools in their most recently updated guidelines, released earlier this month.

The CDC says people who are unvaccinated should continue to mask.

“Masks should be worn indoors by all individuals (age 2 and older) who are not fully vaccinated. Consistent and correct mask use by people who are not fully vaccinated is especially important indoors and in crowded settings, when physical distancing cannot be maintained,” their guidelines say.

The district links to the updated CDC guidelines on its website. A spokesperson said the mitigation strategies currently posted online are up-to-date. 

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However, another set of guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics released Monday recommends universal masking for all students and staff regardless of vaccination status — a slightly stronger policy than the CDC.

The CDC does say, however, that some communities may need to implement universal masking due to low vaccination rates, increasing transmission, or if community input shows such an optional policy would keep many students or teachers from returning to in-person learning, among other factors.

The different shades of masking guidelines comes as the COVID landscape changes locally and nationally.

When summer school started in early June, Anchorage’s alert level was “low.” But by July 14, the city’s alert level was upgraded to “high,” mirroring an overall increase in COVID cases across the state and country, driven by the more contagious delta variant.

The state also recently moved to a “high” alert level — for the first time since May.

Health officials say the increase in cases is being almost exclusively driven by people who are unvaccinated, and they continue to beat the drum of vaccination as the number of people getting their shots stalls. In Anchorage, 54% of residents 12 years and older are fully vaccinated and 60% have at least one dose. 

Vaccination rates for all eligible Alaskans vary by region across the state. 

About 30% of 12-17 year olds in Alaska are vaccinated, according Sarah Hargrave, with the section of Public Health Nursing. 

“We have quite a wide range by borough. Some of those boroughs are only at 8%. And some of them are well over 66% for that age group,” she said in a recent call with school staff and other Alaska health officials.

But one critical population remains ineligible for a vaccine: children under 12. That could change in the coming months, but not before the school year begins. 

Coleman Cutchins, a pharmacist with the Department of Health and Social Services, said Pfizer has enrolled enough kids five to 11 years old to continue their clinical trials. 

“What that means is we’re going to get a better timeline of when elementary aged kids are available to receive the Pfizer vaccine. We’re still probably three to four months out, so we’re still probably talking October, November,” Cutchins said. “But at least now we’re going to get a much better idea, especially as it gets closer to that timeline since their trials have met enrollment.”

Other Alaska school districts are starting to firm up mask policies for the fall as well. The Fairbanks school district school board voted 4-3 in June to make mask wearing optional for staff and students, while the Lower Kuskokwim School District in Bethel will require universal masking for all staff and students.

Districts such as Mat-Su Juneau are still waiting to make a decision for the fall. Mask-wearing in the Mat-Su school district is currently optional but recommended. In Juneau, mask wearing for staff and students is currently required regardless of vaccination status.

The Anchorage School District continues to advocate for vaccinations, though they are not required, and continues to host vaccine clinics. There are also incentives. For example, if a student is considered a close contact to someone infected with COVID-19, but is vaccinated, that student will not have to quarantine.

The district said vaccination is ultimately a family decision.

The first day of school in Anchorage is August 17.

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