The Denali Borough School Board voted this week to make masks optional for students and staff at Denali Borough schools for the coming school year. The decision will be “further fleshed out” at another special meeting to be held soon.
The 5-3 vote came at a special meeting after a few hours of public testimony, a community survey and much board discussion. People attended the meeting both in-person and via Zoom.
The board considered three options for the school year that begins Aug. 25:
• Option A — everyone wears masks;
• Option B — masks for K-6th graders but optional for 6th grade and above;
• Option C — make masks optional for everyone, including visitors.
Many parents complained about the lack of guidance from the school district before the start of school.
Parent Tina Graham encouraged the board to be more communicative with the community.
“This should not be happening three weeks before school starts,” said Dakota MacIver, the high school hockey coach. “Family members and athletes are already deciding to go somewhere else. The main reason is the lack of decision-making.”
He urged the board to let families make their own decisions on wearing masks.
Tony Graham Jr. decried the lack of consistency. Last year, depending on Covid numbers, students bounced between in-person school and classes via Zoom. He argued that masks do not protect the wearer from Covid. He said he will not attend sports events if he has to wear a mask.
Rob Graham reminded the school board that they are “supposed to be a voice by the people, for people.”
“The vast majority of what I’m hearing is that’s not what’s being displayed,” he said. “If the school board does not start putting in place plans and policies to go forth, I will rally people together to run for the school board and I will see change happening.”
Kathy Mattila asked the board to consider an optional masking policy, regardless of vaccination status.
“Children under the age of 12 have a small chance of contracting the virus,” she said. “We cannot keep them in a protective bubble forever.”
Emily Tuttle has a kindergartener entering school this year.
“My first concern is my daughter’s health and safety,” she said. “She’s 5. She hasn’t had Covid and she can’t get the vaccine yet. I, for one, won’t be sending my daughter to this school if masks aren’t mandatory.”
The school district was on its way to not requiring masks as recently as three weeks ago, said Superintendent Dan Polta. Then, things started changing quickly as the CDC updated guidelines to recommend universal masking.
Here are possible repercussions if students wear masks or do not wear masks:
If a masked student tests positive for Covid and classmates are all masked, those classmates will not have to quarantine, Polta said. They will not be considered close contacts.
However, if unmasked, all those classmates will be considered close contacts and will be required to quarantine for 7 to 10 days.
“I do believe we will have some positive cases in the school,” Polta said. “Hopefully not, but I do believe it will happen.”
The goal, Polta said, is get kids in school 100% of the time.
School board members said their own families were divided on the mask issue, making it even more difficult to choose the option best suited for the entire community. A community survey revealed that about 70% of 246 respondents supported masks being optional.
Board member Kristen Randall supported Option C, optional masking.
“I don’t feel we should ever do distance learning again,” she said. “I don’t feel like it was right.”
It was hard on working parents, she noted.
Meanwhile, board member Jenna Hamm strongly supported requiring masks for everyone, reminding her colleagues that this recommendation was issued on a national level.
“First and foremost, it ensures the greatest continuity of learning, especially for those younger kids,” she said.
“Regardless of which option we pick here, there will be some consequences,” said board president James Tench. “There’s no perfect answer here. As much as we want the world to just be normal again, it’s not right now.”
The eventual 5-3 vote selected Option C, “Face coverings such as masks, are highly recommended of all students, staff and visitors in DBSD schools and office.” But not required. The decision will be re-visited and refined at an upcoming meeting.