Anchorage mayor, school district spar over face masks

A variety of face masks and face shields displayed on a table at Huffman Elementary School.
The Anchorage School District displayed the variety of face masks and face shields it will have available for students and staff on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

The debate over whether to require children to wear masks at school in Anchorage is intensifying with just a week before school starts.

Monday evening, the Anchorage School District posted a tweet standing behind its decision to require universal masking in schools this fall.

“Having schools open and students learning is of the highest priority for ASD,” said the post. “CDC guidelines state properly masked students will not be required to quarantine if deemed a close contact. Schools need to keep their doors open. Masking helps us accomplish this goal.”

The district’s message came days after Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson posted on social media opposing the district’s mask policy.

“I strongly oppose the Anchorage School District’s back to school mask mandate and strongly encourage them to immediately reconsider,“ said a post on Bronson’s Facebook page. 

School board president Margo Bellamy said the mayor can express his opinion like any other citizen, but cannot override the district or the school board.

“When it comes to how we manage our schools, that is the board’s decision,” Bellamy said. “That’s just the way it’s always been.”

The district’s mitigation plan went into effect Monday and there are currently no plans to change it, Bellamy said. The district is requiring everyone in school buildings to wear a face mask.

Bronson spokesman Matthew Shuckerow agrees that the city doesn’t have the legal authority to intervene in the district’s management.

“Under Alaska law, Anchorage School District has management authority of its budget and its district-wide operations,” Shuckerow said in an email. “Thus, the school district determines its own policies.”

But he emphasized the mayor’s statements and remarks are focused on the word “mandate.” The mayor does not believe the Municipality of Anchorage should be implementing mandates regarding masking, business closures and vaccinations, Shuckerow said.

“These are decisions that individuals and businesses will make,” he said. “The mayor’s position is very clear that he has no intention of moving forward with mandates from the municipality level. He doesn’t believe that that’s the right decision to do.”

One of the mayor’s first acts in office was to prohibit the city from requiring employees get vaccinated against COVID-19. He also declared that masks are optional inside city buildings. That directive does not apply to the school district.

The sparring social media posts between Bronson and the Anchorage School District are the latest representation of the ongoing divide within the Anchorage community, which widened when the school district initially signaled masks would be optional for students during the upcoming school year. Then, citing CDC recommendations and the surge in COVID cases in Anchorage, ASD Superintendent Deena Bishop recently recommended universal masking. 

Last week, the Anchorage School Board heard hours of fiery testimony from parents imploring the district to implement an optional masking policy instead. Almost as many others expressed gratitude for the universal masking recommendation. Board member Dave Donley made three failed motions to send the policy back to the superintendent.

Ultimately, the school board refused to alter the superintendent’s recommendation.

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

However, that’s not stopping school board members and Assembly members from continuing to publicly weigh in.

Donley wrote in an op-ed in the Anchorage Daily News explaining why he opposed the policy and stating the motions failed because they did not receive a second from another board member. However, former school board members Starr Marsett and Alisha Hilde fired back in an op-ed of their own claiming not only were Donley’s motions improper, but they amounted to him knowingly misleading the public.  

“He injected this, and other lengthy political theater, knowing his actions were not procedurally permissible,” the op-ed read. “And if he still does not understand that process, after all this time and expense, then the public has a right to know that their elected representative is unable to meaningfully participate on the school board.” 

Recently, Assembly member Jamie Allard referred to the district’s mask policy as “criminal child abuse” on a conservative blog. This claim was repeated at the most recent school board meeting several times, but requiring a child to wear a mask is unlikely to be considered criminal child abuse according to local lawyers.  

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This isn’t the first time concerns about the school district’s operations have reached the city’s governing body since the pandemic began. As the district struggled to reopen classrooms to in-person learning last fall, families started contacting Anchorage Assembly members. Families were split then, too. 

The Anchorage School Board gave the superintendent broad authority last year to make decisions about school operations during the pandemic, so decisions could be made more quickly without requiring a vote from the school board. 

Anchorage schools are set to begin classes — with universal masking — on Aug. 17.

This article was updated to include comment from the Anchorage School Board and Mayor Dave Bronson’s spokesperson.

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