Anchorage school board extends mandatory masking after teacher pushback

Creekside Park Elementary School kindergarten teacher Rihana Gay conducts her first in-person class on Jan. 20, 2021, since the pandemic reached Anchorage in March 2020. (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

The Anchorage school board voted to extend the district’s mandatory mask requirement until at least Jan. 15. The vote was six to one, with Dave Donley casting the only no vote.

Last week, the district announced it would end universal masking on Jan. 3 and switch to optional, “parent-informed” masking.

At last night’s school board meeting, several teachers testified against optional masking, citing upcoming holiday travel and the spread of the omicron variant.

Jacob Bera is an art teacher at Eagle River High School. He said most students have no problem with wearing masks. And, he said, an increase in case numbers would lead to more kids missing school.

“Being back in the classroom has reminded me how important it is for students to be in class,” Bera said. “This semester, one third of my students missed five or more days, and one out of 10 students missed 11 or more days. And those who missed school struggle. This decision at this point in time puts students and staff attendance at risk at such an important time academically.”

Marnie Hartill, a staff member at Gruening Middle School, also in Eagle River, agreed.

“If I had a choice of teaching without a mask and seeing my students’ smiles, or the choice of having frequent absenteeism caused by an increase spread of COVID in our community, I’d wear the mask,” she said.

A dozen teachers and staff testified at the meeting – all but one were against optional masking.

A few parents and students also testified for and against the new policy. South Anchorage High School sophomore Reed Davidson said the new rules would require trust in other students, rather than tried and true prevention methods.

“Surgical masks or cloth masks primarily serve the purpose of protecting others from the mask wearers, which makes this policy inherently flawed,” Davidson said. “This means students like myself, who want to be protected have to trust that others will wear their masks voluntarily, with an estimated 40% of students willing to do that.”

Caitlin Poindexter supports the parent-informed masking policy. Her daughters wear masks to pre-K.

“They are preventing nothing except my children learning how to speak, read facial expressions, and develop their social and emotional learning,” she said.

Superintendent Deena Bishop had announced the Jan. 3 date without input from the school board. She said the change was a response to high testing rates and low case numbers.

“I made a decision with the team seeing too many kids on close contacts being out of school – hundreds a week, and again they would come back not positive,” she said.

As of Monday, current case numbers put the district at its highest level of transmission in schools.

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