School bus

A First Student school bus travels along Geist Road Tuesday afternoon, August 22, 2017. 

The Board of Education voted 4-3 to make face masks optional for all public school children effective immediately.

“We are not saying no masks. It is a choice,” board member Jennifer Luke said.

Voting to drop the mask requirement were Luke, Maggie Matheson, Matthew Sampson and April Smith. Erin Morotti, Tim Doran and Chrya Sanderson voted to keep the mask requirement in place.

“I just think we need to move cautiously,” Sanderson said.

Public opinion is as divided as the school board vote, according to results from a survey by the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District.

About 3,600 survey takers, including students, parents and public education workers, were asked if they think masks and other Covid-19 mitigation protocols are necessary. About 46% of respondents said they think face masks are necessary or very necessary, while 45% of respondents said they think face masks are unnecessary or very unnecessary. The rest of the survey takers were neutral about it.

Most of the public testimony offered at the school board meeting was anti-mask.

Doran, who is the school board president, said that anyone who wants to continue to mask up is entitled to do so. Parents and others have made observations about fewer illnesses during the 2020-2021 school year, he said.

“You want to continue wearing a mask? That is absolutely OK. And there may be good reasons for doing that,” he said.

Dr. Mishelle Nace, medical adviser to the school board, agreed. She said no one should be singled out for continuing to wear a face mask at school.

“Should a student make that choice, should a family make that choice, I feel like that is something that should be tolerated, supported,” Nace said.

Morotti suggested waiting to unmask school children until the Covid-19 vaccine becomes more widely available to youth. She pointed out that children under age 12 can’t get the vaccine and that children in the Lower 48 have died of Covid-19. No child in Alaska has died of the disease. Her motion failed.

Superintendent Karen Gaborik told the school board that other mitigation protocols will be loosened after July 1. That includes social distancing and grouping students into smaller units known as cohorts.

“Just in general, things are relaxing,” Gaborik said. “We’re saying July 1. We are using that as a marker.”

Dr. Elizabeth Ohlsen, another medical advisor to the school board, said the state of Alaska and the Fairbanks area both have Covid-19 case rates that are the lowest since last July.

Contact staff writer Amanda Bohman at 459-7545. Follow her at twitter.com/FDNMborough.