Universal masking will now be required inside Denali Borough schools after a 7-2 vote by the Denali Borough Board of Education. Masking had been optional since school started at the end of August. The mandate goes into effect on Sept. 27.
Immediately after the vote at the special meeting Tuesday night, several parents told the school board they will remove their children from in-school classes and homeschool them instead. At earlier meetings, other parents testified that their children would not attend in-person school until a mask mandate is in place. The mask/no mask issue has sharply divided the community.
“I absolutely hate how this is tearing our community apart,” school board President James Tench said. “There’s no perfect solution or answer here. Some people will leave the school. Just as many people may come back. There is no perfect win here.”
The school board has been grappling with the mask/no mask issue throughout the pandemic and especially since just before school started. On Aug. 3, after testimony by many parents who oppose masks in school, the school board voted to make masks optional.
But then the board was bombarded with letters from parents who support the mask mandate. They hadn’t written earlier, some parents said, because they never dreamed the board would go against CDC guidelines.
CDC guidelines recommend schools require students, faculty and any visitors to wear well-fitting masks that allow proper filtration at all times throughout the school day. This includes in classroom and non-classroom settings, but excludes during eating or drinking.
Four meetings and nearly two months later, after many letters and much testimony from both sides, the board amended its Smart Start Plan and decided to require masks of all teachers, students and visitors to Denali Borough schools. The ruling will be reviewed at the board’s November meeting.
The decision was not an easy one for school board members.
“I would really like our framework to more robustly consider and follow CDC recommendations for schools,” board member Jenna Hamm said. She has one child attending school in person and another homeschooling because that second child cannot be vaccinated. Optional masking in the school just didn’t feel safe, she said.
Board member Kristen Randall advocated for maintaining optional masking. She said she strongly believes families should be able to choose for themselves, and she encouraged parents to talk with their students about the issue.
“I would like to see some education (leaders) from the school district come out to help people who might have some vaccine hesitation,” she said. “I know it’s not a popular belief, but I feel vaccinations have a great role in this pandemic. I want the school to be a little more robust in communications with that.”
She said masks would probably be worn more often, if it was the students’ choice, rather than mandated. Perhaps the student council could address the issue, she suggested.
Tri-Valley School documented some positive Covid cases since in-person classes began. Some students had to quarantine while some classes moved to distance learning temporarily during the past month.
“To stick our heads in the sand and say we’re going to be OK forever isn’t gonna work,” board member Ryan Jusczak said. “How many times do we have to roll the dice?”
At a work session just before the special meeting, the board heard from a panel of health experts that included Dr. Mishelle Nace, a pediatric specialist from Fairbanks; Barbara Pennington, a state school nurse health consultant; and Anna Frick, an epidemiologist with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. They strongly urged wearing masks to limit spread of Covid-19.
“We have health professionals reaching out to say, ‘We need your help,’” Tench said. “We are being asked to make this change for a period of time while the current surge can be brought under control. As much as it’s painful for us all to revisit this, I would support, for the time being, returning to a period of universal masking.”
Some parents who attended the meeting in person addressed the board immediately after the vote.
“I’m very displeased with the vote tonight,” parent Rob Graham said. “I think you had people scare you into voting the way you did. I don’t think you spoke for the community at large. I will be pulling my kids out of school.”
Other parents stepped forward to echo that sentiment.
“I just hope we can maybe step back a little bit and look at the bigger picture of what we’re trying to do for the kids and not be biased by all the other strife happening around us,” Tench said. “As long as I’ve lived here, school has never been a place politics came in and poisoned things. I certainly hope that’s not what we’re starting to see now.”
Denali school superintendent Dan Polta sent a letter to school families on Wednesday announcing the decision. The decision was based, he said, on “the desire to maximize in-person learning by reducing the possible number of children needing to quarantine if they are a close contact of a positive case, the incredibly high rate of transmission of the coronavirus in our state, and the impact of Covid-19 on the availability of care at Alaskan hospitals.”
He urged parents to honor and support everyone’s individual decision for their children.
“Regardless of what each of us personally believes about this decision, I know that we all want the best education possible for our own children and all the children in our community,” he wrote. “This shared belief is one of the strengths of our small community.”