Masks will be required inside Juneau schools when classes begin next week

A group of children play in puddles.
Avery Barnaby dances on the playground during her first day back to school as a first-grader at Sayéik Gastineau Community School on Jan. 14, 2021, in Juneau. Juneau’s Board of Education has decided that when school starts in August, everyone inside of school district buildings will be required to wear masks. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

With less than a week before the first day of school, the Juneau Board of Education is mandating masks for everyone inside school district buildings. 

The board voted unanimously on Tuesday for universal masking, but not before more than a dozen parents, teachers and community members voiced their opinions over Zoom. Board President Elizabeth Siddon said they also received more than 230 emails about face masks.

“I also want to note that the decision tonight is not written in stone,” Siddon said. “We are not making this decision to be a decision that will last all year without reconsideration. We are going to keep our eyes on what is happening.”

The Anchorage School District is also requiring everyone in school building to wear face masks when classes start next week. But masks are optional in the Kenai Peninsula public schools. In the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District, masks are optional, but may be required in a classroom or school if its considered a “medium-risk environment” or has had a positive case.

In Juneau, during the board meeting on Tuesday, some parents said their children were suffering from not being able to see non-verbal queues. Others said their children’s mental health is declining. 

Parent Robert Shoemake said his son was having trouble learning to read.

“He wears a mask,” Shoemake said, “and he seems to be disconnected from the kids around him and I’m thinking that a lot of the other kids are feeling that way.”

RELATED: The pandemic forced these families to try new education formats. Now, they want to stick with it.

Another parent said the opposite, that her daughter was afraid to go to school without masks. Multiple parents told the board their kids don’t mind wearing face coverings and are excited just to be able to attend school in person.

“We’ve had a tough year and a half like a lot of families out there,” said Iris Matthews, who has two children enrolled in school. “They’re fine in the masks. They’ve gotten used to it. They don’t even think about it anymore. The best chance we have at giving them what they really need, which is being able to go to school every day and establish those routines that are so important to their learning, is to keep masking.”

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Others, like community member Thom Buzard said the decision should be left up to parents, not the school district.

“You’ve been elected by the people to run the school, but not to overrun the rights of the parents.” Buzard said. “We already provide sanitation in the schools, hand washing, we do ask the children if they have symptoms to stay home. These are all reasonable and prudent things to do, but I think that this (requiring masks) is a huge power grab and I’m against it.”

Under the new policy, the superintendent still has the authority to grant minor adjustments that are consistent with CDC guidelines for in-building operations and at district-sponsored events. That means for teams traveling for games or events, safety protocols can be modified based on the risk level in their destination as well as other factors. 

Masks will not be required outdoors anymore. In the past, they were required at all times on school grounds, even outside.

“We’re all making the best decisions we can with the number one priority that we maintain our operations full time, five days a week for in person learning,” Superintendent Bridget Weiss said. “Every decision we make fuels that goal because we know that there is a hardship on our children and on our families when we can’t do that.”

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