School starts in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough on Wednesday and face masks will be encouraged, but optional.
School District Superintendent Randy Trani said a survey of teachers and parents came back overwhelmingly against a universal mask mandate. Still, some are speaking out against the current policy, in a borough that has one of Alaska’s lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates.
Trani said he believes the district’s policy for this school year amounts to a balancing act between what is recommended by experts and what the community will bear. If individual schools start to show signs of COVID-19 spreading, rules for those specific campuses may change, he said.
“The chances of a student dying under eighteen from COVID are only slightly worse in the United States from … playing football,” he said. “So yes, there’s a risk. And there’s also a risk of not having kids in school, so we’re doing a weird balancing act here. We’re trying to work with the community that we live in.”
Last year, the Mat-Su Borough School District had a host of COVID-19 mitigation measures in place, including a mask requirement. Individual campuses closed at various times due to the spread of COVID-19, but the district as a whole remained open, with the exception of a short shutdown just before Thanksgiving.
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In an email to a Susitna Valley parent, which Trani acknowledged writing, he said the current situation is “not completely ‘governed’ by logic and scientific understanding of the natural world.”
He hopes treating schools individually, and changing mitigation strategies based on case levels at specific campuses will allow the district to react with additional restrictions where needed without as much backlash.
“When cases go up at a school, we’re going to use masks,” he said. “I think people will be okay with that. At least we hope.”
Decisions on when to implement further mitigation measures will be influenced by a health advisory team, which Trani said will meet daily at the start of the school year. That team is made up of district administrators as well as health care professionals. It’s the same method the district used to guide individual school measures last year, said Trani.
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But that plan isn’t sitting well with everyone, including parents like Ashley Kaso of Talkeetna. Kaso said she’s concerned about sending children back to school, particularly those too young to be vaccinated against COVID-19. She believes the district’s policies last year were largely effective.
“I’m just hoping that these measures can stay in place until the school-aged children who would like to be vaccinated can do that,” she said. “And if we can just keep these safety measures that we know work, that would be great.”
Ideally the school district would start off with the same rules as last year, Kaso said — including masks — and public opinion would not outweigh the experts. Current guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend masking inside school buildings.
“No one’s opinion, publicly, should matter, mine included,” she said. “What is the CDC saying? What is the Alaska Department of Public Health saying?”
Some teachers are also critical of the current COVID-19 mitigation policy. Tim Walters teaches science at Redington Jr/Sr. High School in Wasilla. He called the current plan a farce, and said he doesn’t feel safe returning to school this week. He said he has been vaccinated and has already had COVID-19.
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“So, of the people that could get infected, I have a lesser chance of it, but there are still people who have had repeat infections,” he said. “And it did a number on me last year. I got pneumonia afterward, and I’m still suffering some of the effects.”
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Walters said he’s not alone among teachers who are concerned, but that he, as someone who has been in the district for a while, feels more comfortable speaking up.
“I know of new teachers — new to the profession — who aren’t as secure, and they’re afraid to say anything,” he said. “They’re going to mask up and hope for the best.”
Individual school COVID-19 mitigation policies were posted on the district’s website over the weekend. When Trani laid out the initial plan, all 46 Mat-Su schools were listed as “low risk.”