The Fairbanks North Star Borough Board of Education approved mandatory face masks for students, staff and visitors age 2 and older when inside district buildings. The vote happened at the board’s regular meeting Tuesday night and goes into effect Monday.
“The administration will start communicating the change to students and parents today and over the next couple of days so folks will be informed and can adjust,” board President Tim Doran said in a text message.
Face masks won’t be expected of students involved in extracurricular activities unless required by the Alaska School Activities Association, according to Yumi McCulloch, director of public relations for the district.
“Following the school board’s most recent requirement of wearing masks indoors, staff and spectators must wear a mask during extracurricular indoor activities,” reads a school district news release. “Participating student-athletes do not have to wear a mask for the duration of the practice or game. Student-athletes engage in regular antigen screening and travel protocols currently in place. Currently, ASAA does not have any requirements for local events or student-athletes.”
The 5-2 vote — board members April Smith and Maggie Matheson were the “no” votes — came after parents and physicians pleaded with education leaders for weeks as a new wave of Covid-19 cases washes over Alaska, filling hospitals. Education leaders will revisit mandatory masking for the second half of the school year at the Board of Education meeting on Dec. 7.
On Wednesday, the Fairbanks Memorial Hospital spokeswoman reported that 21 people — a new record — were being treated as inpatients for Covid-19. The hospital is struggling to care for the patient surge and is recruiting for Covid Relief Patient Safety Assistants (CR-PSA) and paramedics to help.
Borough Covid cases
The school district enrollment is around 12,000 students. Doran said the state of Covid-19 in the Fairbanks borough caused education leaders to change their minds about optional masking.
“I think the change in [the] current health-related status in our community and schools was a major factor,” he said.
Jennifer Luke is considered a swing vote on the issue and said at the school board meeting that her goal is to maintain consistent in-person learning.
Under public health guidelines, students do not need to quarantine as close contacts when classmates test positive so long as both the Covid-positive student and the close contact wore masks. Schools are seeing high rates of absenteeism in part due to quarantine requirements.
“Seeing modified operations or the possibility of a school or an entire classroom shutting down is not an acceptable thing for me or this community,” Luke said.
About masks, she said, “Is it forever? Absolutely not. We started school not wearing masks.”
Mandatory vaccinations for public education workers is not anticipated to be discussed, according to the school board president, who added that requiring vaccinations of students would be a decision at the state level.
Vaccines are available to anyone 12 and older.
Mishelle Nace, medical adviser to the school district, also spoke at the meeting, noting the pressure on the health care system during this spike in Covid-19 patients.
Foundation Health Partners has more than 200 open positions and current staff are doing work outside of their original training, according to Nace.
A wing at the hospital is dedicated to Covid-19 patients.
The virus surge began well before the first day of school on Aug. 18, with face masks optional and other protocols relaxed compared with the previous school year.
Choice vs. mandate
The total number of virus cases among students and staff reported since Aug. 11 was 355 as of Wednesday afternoon with about a third reported over the last seven days, according to a district virus information website. The total number of school district Covid-19 cases for the entire 2020-2021 school year was 419. Unlike last year, the school district is offering free Covid-19 testing.
Education leaders have been hearing from both advocates of mandatory masks and supporters of letting parents choose.
The majority of the people who attended the school board meeting held signs that read “Don’t muzzle our kids” and “Mask choice.”
At the meeting last month, the majority of the testifiers favored mandatory face masks during periods deemed high risk by public health officials.
A survey about masking from May suggests the community is divided about the requirement though several school board members who spoke against mandatory masks said they think most people want mask choice because they observe that most people have been going mask-free at public schools.