Face masks optional at Kenai Peninsula schools this year

An empty hallway lined with red lockers.
Lockers at Kenai Central High School. (Sabine Poux/KDLL)

Face masks will not be required in Kenai Peninsula Borough schools when classes start up again this month — contrary to new recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that schools universally require masks as the more contagious delta variant spreads.

The mask policy is part of the Kenai district’s new COVID-19 mitigation plan for the upcoming school year.

Superintendent Clayton Holland helped create the plan and presented it at the school board meeting Monday night.

“Younger students need to see faces to decode and learn language,” he said. “We’ve heard countless stories of students struggling to read last year, and nationally, particularly with students who are at risk, this has become (exacerbated). Students need to see faces to learn social skills and cues. Particularly young students, once again, and students with disabilities. Human connection is vital to our students.”

The CDC recommends creating a layered COVID-19 strategy in schools, where students under 12 still aren’t eligible to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.

The Kenai School District will keep many of its protocols from last school year in place, such as new air filtration systems, symptom-free policies and encouragement of physical distancing.

The district said it does “strongly advise” unvaccinated staff to wear masks and will close schools on a case-by-case basis when there are high levels of spread. 

Some parents worry that’s not enough.

“With the district’s current policy of optional masking, high-risk disabled students will be functionally excluded from in-person education within the KPBSD,” said Jessica Moore. Her daughter is going into senior year at Soldotna High School, and is at high risk for developing serious illness from COVID-19. 

“Last year, she stayed home because the district could not keep her safe,” Moore said. “This year, she’ll stay home because the district will not keep her safe.”

The school district’s COVID-19 mitigation policies have been controversial in the past.

Last winter, as the district gradually brought students back into classrooms after the area’s largest COVID spike yet, an outspoken group of parents demanded a full reopening of schools and threatened to keep their children home if the district did not comply.

As the school year wound down, Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce publicly challenged the school district on its universal masking protocol on Facebook and local talk radio.

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Ultimately, the district lifted the mask policy for summer school program students — back in when local case counts were dropping. 

But now, COVID infections are on the rise again. Meanwhile, the vaccination rate on the Peninsula is one of the lowest in the state.

In a Facebook post last week, Pierce doubled down on his position on masks. He advocated to keep mask wearing a personal choice.

Pierce’s former chief of staff, James Baisden, also has kids in the school district. His kids had a hard time learning last year, he said.

“We live in Alaska for a reason. We live up here because, typically, we think we are freer of government. I’ve been part of the government for many years and I guess what I want to see is, I want to see us try to step back and keep this as simple as possible: Make it normal for our children.”

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District parent Sandra Elam said she likes that the new policy allows parents to make decisions about whether their kids wear masks.

“Parents should be the voice for their children in this matter,” she said. “And the current plan allows for that.”

Other parents and teachers said it’s not that simple, since masks work best when used collectively.

Winter Marshall-Allen is a special education teacher at Homer High School. She said she felt safer with masking requirements in place. She worries for the health of her students — and herself.

“As a teacher who didn’t have the choice to teach at home because I teach students with severe disabilities, at what risk are you putting me as a staff member?” she said. “Will I want to continue to work in these conditions?” 

Holland said the district will work with individual families if their students have medical conditions that make them more susceptible to COVID-19. 

Last year, the school board voted to leave decisions about the mitigation protocol to the district administration. District spokesperson Pegge Erkeneff said the most recent protocols came from district leadership, taking into account public comments the district received.

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Some school board members said they were uneasy about the decision.

“This is very delicate for me,” board member Penny Vadla said. “Because if one kid dies on my watch, I can’t live with that.”

There is at least one exception to KPBSD’s mask-optional policy. Students will be required to wear masks on school buses, a mode of federal transportation.

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