The Anchorage School District will no longer require students and staff to wear face masks in school buildings starting Feb. 28.
Superintendent Deena Bishop said the change to optional masking follows a rapid drop in COVID-19 cases in the state and the widespread availability of vaccines. She said omicron has shifted the focus from case numbers to hospitalizations, which have also decreased.
“If you’re protected, vaccinated and boosted, your chance of having serious illness really goes down drastically,” she said. “What we’ve been watching is the ability for our community to respond. And for us, it’s getting daily updates from hospitals and their ability to staff and be able to care for patients.”
In a letter to families on Friday, Bishop wrote that continued mandatory masking “negatively impacts our students’ education, intellectual development, and emotional well-being.” She said that affects how students develop skills like reading, which many kids have struggled to do during the pandemic.
“Time and time again, our primary teachers have really highlighted for us and rung that bell that these kids are really missing out,” Bishop said. “They missed out online, and now when we have them in class, it’s very difficult to hear them and see who’s responding and who’s not.”
Corey Aist, president of the Anchorage Education Association, said teachers’ reactions to the change will likely be mixed. His main concern is an increase in absenteeism among staff, if the policy change causes case numbers to increase again.
“It does feel like a better transition would be to have masking optional after spring break,” he said. “It would give a couple extra weeks for numbers to come down. Breaks are an interesting time in Alaska because so many people choose to travel, and when we travel we’re also more exposed.”
Bishop said she doesn’t expect a significant increase in absences among students or staff because the omicron wave has seemingly already passed.
When masking became optional at summer school programs in 2021, about 40% of elementary school students and staff and 30% of high school students and staff wore masks, Bishop said. She said the district is prepared to offer PCR tests for symptomatic students and staff through the end of the school year.