Masked no more

The Fairbanks school district is loosening its face mask requirement. 

A new survey by the school district asks parents and others if they think masks and social distancing are necessary.

A private school in Fairbanks has not required masks, and the principal said they’ve had no Covid-19 outbreak.

The two-minute online survey at www.surveymonkey.com/r/D7Q8YSY closes May 20, the last day of school, and results will be made public on May 28. Face masks are currently required at Fairbanks area public schools. In-person classes resumed in January.

The Fairbanks North Star Borough Board of Education is expected to take a vote on June 1 for whether to continue Covid-19 mitigation protocols, such as masking, social distancing and cohorting, for summer school and into the fall. Emails to education leaders both favor and reject the masking of schoolchildren.

Fairhill Christian School has offered in-person classes since August. They do not require masks, and there’s been no virus outbreak at the school, according to Principal Dawnn Macphee. The school, which has an enrollment of 146 students, goes from preschool to eighth grade.

“As teachers, you want to see the children speak, especially in the younger grades, and hear them read,” Macphee said. “The older kids, you know, they are just more comfortable without the masks — to be able to have a normal place to go.”

Macphee said a few children wore masks at school at the beginning of the school year, but they shed them after a few weeks.

The school spaced out desks somewhat and lightly encouraged children to avoid close contact, such as hugging. They asked families to keep children with symptoms, even mild ones, home. They sent students home if they exhibited even mild symptoms.

“Any kind of symptoms, they were not to come to school,” Macphee said. “When both parents were at home sick, they kept their kids home. Parents were very kind and considerate of other families here at the school. We kind of all worked together. We just trusted that this would work. We were not afraid.”

Families who traveled were asked to quarantine. The school also did some extra cleaning.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that school children wear masks and maintain a distance of at least three feet.

“Studies of Covid-19 transmission in schools that used consistent implementation of multiple prevention strategies have shown success in limiting transmission in schools,” reads the CDC website. “A study of 11 school districts in North Carolina with in-person learning for at least nine weeks during the fall 2020 semester reported minimal school-related transmission even while community transmission was high. These schools implemented and strictly adhered to multiple prevention strategies, including universal mask use and physical distancing.”

The federal agency’s guidance is also informed by a study of outbreaks at schools in Germany, comparing case rates before and after implementing virus protocols.

“After schools reopened with prevention strategies in place, the average number of outbreaks and cases was smaller, suggesting that prevention strategies had some protective effect,” according to the CDC. 

School district families are encouraged to answer the survey questions “from the perspective of how things are today with current Covid-19 transmission rates, vaccinations, etc,” according to an email announcing the new survey.

The Fairbanks North Star Borough currently has the highest average daily virus case rate in the state of Alaska and has been in the high alert status for virus transmission for at least seven months.

Covid-19 deaths in the borough have slowed but hospitalizations have spiked recently.

The borough saw nine deaths in January—the most in any month since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic—one in February, six in March, zero in April and one so far in May, according to state data. The total number of Covid-19 deaths in the borough is listed as 38.

Eleven people were being treated for the virus at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital as of Friday.

About 36% of people in the Fairbanks region have had at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, according to state data.

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