Outbursts, tears and jeers don’t sway Anchorage School Board from mask mandate

A panel of nine people sit behind a large desk listening to conversation. Some are wearing masks and some aren't.
The Anchorage School Board and Anchorage School District superintendent sit for a school board meeting at the Anchorage School District Education Center on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021. (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

Opposition to the Anchorage School District’s universal masking policy was loud and tense on Tuesday during public testimony at the district’s first school board meeting of the school year. But hours of testimony, which pushed the meeting to nearly midnight, were not enough to move the school board away from the superintendent’s recommendation.

Citing new CDC protocols for schools, Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop recommended universal masking inside district buildings in a letter sent to families Saturday evening. Though it can intervene, the school board has given the superintendent broad authority to make decisions throughout the pandemic. 

At Tuesday’s meeting, at least 75 people, including several children, signed up to testify in-person or over the phone and 62 people submitted written testimony to the school board. Slightly more people opposed a mask mandate. 

The hours of public testimony were also punctuated by outbursts from the crowd. People ignored calls to stop clapping, and also shouted out “discrimination” and “child abuse,” and at least one person cursed at the board on their way out. At the end of the meeting, a few people exclaimed that the board and administrators would be imprisoned shouting, “You’re going to jail!”  

RELATED: University of Alaska Anchorage students living in dorms must be fully vaccinated 

It’s difficult to say whether the many opinions accurately reflect the variety of thoughts and feelings of a district with more than 40,000 students. For weeks, parent organizations and community groups had been organizing to attend the school board meeting. School board member Kelly Lessens said the board received at least 914 emails prior to the meeting. Board members and administrators have said the family feedback has been evenly split. 

Tuesday’s school board meeting began with several people in support of the mandate, pointing out some children are too young to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and encouraging adherence to the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines for schools. 

Juliana Shields compared mask wearing to the response to secondhand smoke.

“These kids at school are breathing on each other all day long. And one parent’s personal choice comes at the expense of other children,” said Shields, a family medicine physician in Anchorage and the parent of three children in the district. “This is absolutely a matter of public safety. The inconvenience of a few does not outweigh public safety. And, quite frankly, wearing a mask for the vast majority of kids is not even an inconvenience.”

RELATED: Delta variant accounts for 96% of Alaska’s new COVID cases

Others said they wanted individual choice and suggested that mask wearing was part of a slippery slope to authoritarianism. 

“We, parents, have a God-given right, responsibility and authority to manage our own children’s health and safety. Not the government, not you,” said Noreen Price, a parent to three daughters. “We are a country and a state of freedom-loving people. If you force mask mandates today, what will happen tomorrow?”

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Throughout the meeting people on all sides of the debate presented research and data that they had found from a variety of sources. At times, one person would testify to a single piece of information and the next person would directly contradict them. Community members disagreed on almost every aspect of the pandemic including its severity. 

Two pieces of paper taped to a wooden door. The door has a small window on it. One piece of paper is taped directly above the window and the second piece of paper is taped to the right of the window.
A piece of paper indicates the visitor capacity of the Anchorage School District school board meeting room at the Education Center on Tuesday. A second piece of paper taped to the door alerts those who enter of Board Policy 9323.7: “No disturbance or willful interruption of any School Board Meeting shall be permitted. Persistence, by an individual or group, shall be grounds for the chair to terminate the privilege of addressing the meeting. The School Board may removed disruptive individuals and order the room cleared if necessary.” (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

Those who testified in support of the mask mandate were concerned about the highly-contagious delta variant. Some said that not only has the delta variant changed the COVID environment but the protections such as a citywide mask mandates and shutdowns are no longer in place. Some even stated that the district’s operations plan doesn’t go far enough because it does not include cohorting students for lunch and allows for close contacts to avoid quarantine if they are vaccinated. 

“I was greatly relieved [by the superintendent’s decision], my children were greatly relieved. And I urge you to follow through on that, not just for the first few months, and not just until the vaccine becomes available for children who are under 12, but to carry through, as long as we have cases rising, and until we get to very low rates in Anchorage,”  said parent Christina Talbott-Clark.

 “It is my opinion that children can and will wear masks. I believe research supports this,” said Winterberry 5th grader Julian Cardinal. “Kids in my age range and younger cannot yet be vaccinated. I don’t want to go back to school with kids unmasked and unvaccinated while COVID-19 cases are increasing in our community. And I’m worried my parents won’t let me attend if we aren’t masking. My dream of returning to normal has not yet been fulfilled. I wish we were back to normal but I know this pandemic is not behind us. And that’s why I support public masking in schools.”

People who testified against the mandate, often to cheers from the crowd, gave a litany of reasons to not require masking. Some said children were being traumatized by the masks and kids who would not or could not wear masks would be bullied. They said special needs students were having their rights violated. Some called those who supported the mask mandate “hypochondriacs” and said that masks don’t work. Others threatened to remove their students from the district or said they already had or said they would send their children to school maskless anyway. Several said they would vote out school board members over this decision. 

Related: COVID-19 patients at Alaska’s hospitals are mostly younger, sicker and unvaccinated 

“I’m astounded by the fact that I have to sit here in front of you to defend my boys’ rights to breathe fresh air. And to not further traumatize them by being forced to wear masks or face shields in order to receive the education that by law they are entitled to,” said Sondra Tompkins, a nurse and  former military officer. “So I’m just going to say it: if you want my boys to attend the Anchorage School District, you will not enforce masking for any student.” 

Jessica Price was brought to tears pleading with the school board to reconsider the masking policy, saying mask wearing led her kids to have bad interactions with other children. “It breaks my heart because I’ve worked all summer long bringing the mental health of my children back up, feeding them, giving them the love that they need. And I can’t. And it’s been so difficult and I’m going to be sending them right back into it. And I’m hoping that the school can figure that out with the kids with the anger issues that they’re having.”

A man plugs his ears with his index fingers and another man to his right holds up a piece of paper
An attendee a Tuesday’s meeting plugs his ears as a board member addresses the crowd. Another attendee holds up a sign that reads, “You’re going to jail.” (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

School board member Dave Donley made three motions to amend the masking guidelines or to ask the superintendent to go back and reconsider the recommendation which received applause from the crowd. But none of the motions was seconded and each failed. 

School board member Andy Holleman said he supported the superintendent, and believed she would change the masking requirement when COVID case counts in Anchorage begin to decline.    

“I know that we disagree on the science of it,” Holleman said. “But I do think you’ll see this go away, I do think you’ll see a time when we’re back to normal, the way we always thought of as normal, but it’s not normal in the community right now.”

Board member Pat Higgins, who works in a hospital, said he did not see a win-win solution at this time despite the testimony.

“(I) appreciate that we got a difference of opinion. I’m not going to buy that the people who want masks, and the CDC and the American Pediatric Association (sic) are giving me false information,” Higgins said. “I’m going to rely upon science, okay? I have to. I’m not going to listen to either political network out there telling me one side or the other.” 

School is scheduled to begin Aug. 17. 

Superintendent Bishop shared that families can expect that students will have full schedules and activities each day as they would during a traditional school year with mitigation strategies, including universal masking, in place. 

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