Anchorage superintendent to announce fall mask policy by next week

Deena Bishop, superintendent of the Anchorage School District, outlined plans for the opening of Anchorage schools ahead of the 2020 school season. (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop said she is listening, gathering information from experts and feedback from families in order to recommend a mask policy for the start of the 2021 school year.

“It’s very divisive right now,” Bishop said. “It isn’t a small group (on) one side or another. There are a lot of parents articulating why they want masks for children mandatory. And there are a lot of parents that don’t want masks being made mandatory for children.”

RELATED: COVID is spiking and hospitals are filling up. But Alaska leaders aren’t bringing back mandates.

Bishop is expected to recommend a masking policy for the fall by next week’s Anchorage School Board meeting. In an interview this week, she offered no hints as to what rules she’ll propose. 

The debate around face mask requirements at schools is boiling up nationally after the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently changed their guidance. Now, they say, everyone in school buildings should wear face masks — regardless of vaccination status — as the highly-contagious delta variant surges across the country.

Just earlier this month, indoor masking guidances had applied exclusively to unvaccinated people. And with Anchorage students headed back to school in less than three weeks, many families are eager to see what the district will decide.

RELATED: Leaders of Alaska’s largest hospitals issue stark warning as COVID-19 surge continues

Parent groups on both sides of the mask debate have been organizing email writing campaigns and plans to testify at the next school board meeting to advocate for their positions.

After a relatively quiet summer, concern over the district’s mask policy increased when district officials signaled that optional masking — determined by parent preference and in line with CDC guidance at the time — was likely to continue into the school year after being implemented for the summer program.

RELATED: A CDC document gives new details on just how dangerous the delta variant really is

The district said the summer program had been successful with optional masking, with few COVID cases, limited viral spread, and a low alert level in the city.

“There wasn’t an issue of anyone being made fun of for wearing a mask, or anyone made fun of for not wearing a mask, and in any given school, we had 40 to 50% of the people wearing masks when they wanted to,” Bishop said. “At that time, there wasn’t an impetus to change.” 

But, shortly after that, the COVID cases started spiking again. Currently, Anchorage is mirroring a statewide and national surge in hospitalizations and case counts are approaching levels not seen since last winter. 

RELATED: Should you be wearing a mask indoors in your region of Alaska? Here’s what the CDC says.

“That’s how interesting this delta variant is, it’s definitely a different beast,” Bishop said. “So now here we are. And what do we do? We use the best information at the time to turn around and make the best decisions. And while that’s frustrating because things change, I think that’s the life of a virus.” 

When asked about whether the district would require the COVID-19 vaccine for students, Bishop said because immunizations are a statutory requirement at the state level she didn’t feel that was a decision she has the authority to make. 

“That is not my lane,” Bishop said. “We have not had any discussions about mandating vaccines at all.”

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But, she said, there has been a recent uptick in families interested in getting their students vaccinated, including incentives such as not having to quarantine if they come into contact someone contagious. 

According to the Anchorage Health Department about 33 % of 12 to 19-year-olds in Anchorage are fully vaccinated. 

Children under 12 are not yet eligible for vaccination, but according to Alaska’s health department, the total number of hospitalization cases in children under 12 due to COVID-19 is 17. That’s about 1% of all cases — with zero deaths to date.

The Anchorage School District has historically stuck to CDC guidelines, and Bishop said the district plans to continue to follow the science. 

“The idea that science changes — that’s kind of a no brainer, that’s what science does,” Bishop said. “The more knowledge we have, the smarter we get, and when we know better, we should do better.”

The superintendent said she will share her recommendation by the next school board meeting, Aug. 3. 

Anchorage schools start on Aug. 17.

Bishop said stopping in-person learning should be an “absolute last resort.” 

Reach reporter Mayowa Aina at maina@alaskapublic.org

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