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Informed decisions should guide school mask policy changes

Dear members of the FNSB School Board and Superintendent Melin:

I have written before about the responsibility of the FNSB School Board to protect the children and young adults in your care. To that end, I find myself, once again, quoting a member of the medical community, Physician’s Assistant Josh Butler, of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, regarding the optimum role of school boards, at this time of confusion and conflict.

“At the moment, current science supports the use of masking to help keep our children and others safe. We should acknowledge that science can — and will — change as new evidence becomes available. If the science changes, a school board’s masking policies should change with it. But masking indoors should be required for the start of the school year and the policy should frequently be reevaluated to determine if/when the evidence no longer supports it.”

Fairbanks, and Alaska as a whole, have finally turned back the flood of Covid-19 patients and deaths that made Alaska the No. 1 state in Covid-19 infections and deaths. What a relief it has been to see the numbers decline, only to be met with the possibility of a new, more transmissible variant of the disease arriving in our state. The omicron variant has already been documented in several US states as well as countries around the world. This pattern is not unlike the pattern we saw with the first wave of the coronavirus, and its second wave, the Delta variant. I can think of no plausible reason to believe that the spread of the omicron variant will be significantly different, especially given the travel plans and family gatherings we know occur between the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

I urge you to continue the mask mandate until at least mid-February. By that time the impact of travel between other states and our own should be very apparent. If it turns out that this new variant is neither as transmissible nor as severe in its impact on individuals and communities as its predecessors, that would be a good time to reconsider making masking optional.

I know that these are difficult questions and that there is a great deal of pressure on you from both sides of the argument. I admire you for taking on the responsibility of being a School Board member. I would just point out that the consequences of your decision are very different depending on what you choose to do at this time.

On the one hand, the consequence of making masking optional risks putting our entire community in danger before we and you have the opportunity to assess what the impact of the new variant and extensive holiday travel and gatherings will be. I can only imagine how terrible each of you would feel if by mid-January a significant number of students and personnel are absent because they or a family member has contracted this disease.

On the other hand, I agree. It’s not fun to have to wear a mask for any length of time, to be heard through a mask, to see over the top of a mask, to understand what others are saying, to have others understand what you just said. No one I know loves the experience. But the consequence of making masking mandatory is about comfort only, not about the well-being of the students, the schools, or the community.

Please, please, postpone this decision for a few more months and then reassess it six weeks after holidays are over. You and we will all know more by then and you will be in a position to make an informed decision, one that places the best interests of the students as your number one priority.

Jennifer Jolis lives in Ester

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