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Public records request show thoughts on masks in school

At a municipal candidate forum last month, school board member Erin Morotti noted a large percentage of public input and testimony favored a return to universal masking in school. While trying to make this point, she was interrupted repeatedly and yelled at by members of the largely unmasked audience, bent on being disruptive.

Morotti’s comment stuck with me. Being a curious person and mom of three Fairbanks educated kids — including our youngest, a high school senior — I requested the information directly from the district through a public records request. Here’s what I found out.

Out of 288 comments related to masking from Aug. 19 to Sept. 7, both written and verbal, 249 favored masking. A total of 39 favored so-called parent choice. A few folks, mostly on the pro-mask side, wrote in multiple times. To be fair, I counted them only once.

That’s 86.4% in favor of masking and 13.5% favoring parent choice. Since the vote to re-mask on Sept. 7, weekly school cases dropped from a high of 169 to the current 58. It appears masking is helping. See www.k12northstar.org/domain/5426.

More than numbers are the stories the public records reveal. One single mother of several small children, horrified at the lack of Covid mitigation in school, took her children out to homeschool them. This put her in a bind; she is her family’s sole wage earner.

Another mom wrote from Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, where she prepared to deliver her third child. She and her husband were so worried about their two other young children starting school unmasked, including a 5-year-old, that she felt compelled to write when she should have been focused on welcoming her new bundle of joy.

Parents wrote about isolation and depression their teens suffered last year when schools were closed. One noted her special-needs child; homeschooling is simply not an option. Many parents wrote about the disruption of positive Covid tests, quarantining and sickness. Their kids missed school while the parents missed work and paychecks. One high school principal, also a parent, said student absenteeism reached nearly 40% one day.

Several grandparents pleaded with the board to reinstate universal masking, concerned about their increased risk from grandchildren. Attorneys wrote in, citing legal liability.

One mother wrote about how she and her husband worked diligently to keep their child safe the prior 1½ years, only for their son to catch Covid his first week of kindergarten. Another mother sent recent (2021) peer-reviewed scientific articles supporting the efficacy of masking and HEPA filters, proven to reduce Covid spread indoors.

I counted 31 letters from local doctors and nurses, who implored the board to reinstitute masks. Many care for Covid patients in Fairbanks.

On the parent choice side, the pickings were slim. One mother worried how masks might affect her kindergartener’s speech and learning, which I sympathize with. One sent an article about a Florida study of bacteria and pathogens found in six masks. That was interesting, but a very small sample size. Another sent a lengthy literature review of the harms extended mask wearing, particularly N95s, can cause. Much of the review pertained to articles published prior to the pandemic, however. It did not consider masks in terms of reducing the spread of respiratory droplets containing the virus.

One father helpfully sent links to his source — Alex Jones’s “Infowars.”

Some on the parent choice side thanked the board for their May vote to drop universal masking. They railed against big government, and their “right” to, I guess, spread the virus and prolong the pandemic. They had no local story to share, only anger. What was their motivation for writing? Oh yes. Board member April Smith via Facebook, in the weeks leading up to the September vote, encouraged a group with members outside Fairbanks to write in. She apparently wasn’t getting enough support locally.

Kate Ripley is a lifelong, multi-generation Alaskan, mother and wife who lives in Fairbanks.

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