Majority of Alaska students will start the school year under universal mask policies

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)

Students across Alaska are heading back to school, most of them back to in-person learning, and under varied mask policies. 

Most of the students, teachers, and staff in Alaska will go back to school wearing masks this year, with a few exceptions. 

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Out of the top five biggest districts in Alaska, three have implemented optional mask policies: the Mat-Su, Fairbanks, and Kenai Peninsula school districts. 

But, out of the top 10 largest districts, seven are requiring universal masking inside school buildings. And across the state, more than half of all districts are starting the school year with universal mask policies. 

Some district plans remain in-flux. For example, the Ketchikan School District is still drafting its policy but the current draft plan says the district’s mask policy will be determined by the borough’s risk level as indicated by Alaska DHSS. Currently, Ketchikan’s risk level is ‘High,’ which correlates to a universal mask policy according to the district’s draft plan.    

MASK POLICIES OF ALASKA’S LARGEST DISTRICTS

DistrictEnrollmentMask PolicyFirst day of school
Anchorage41902Universal08/17
Mat-Su18354Optional08/18
Fairbanks11402Optional08/18
Galena9399Universal08/24
Kenai Peninsula8085Optional08/17
Yukon-Koyukuk4348Universal08/25
Juneau4145Universal08/16
Lower Kuskokwim4087Universal08/11
Kodiak Island2297Universal08/30
Ketchikan2158Universal08/26

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

The state continues to grapple with a surge in COVID cases driven by the delta variant of the virus as students prepare to return to school. Currently, nearly every region in Alaska is at a high alert level for COVID cases.

Some districts, like Ketchikan and Sitka, are aligning their risk levels with the COVID alert levels in their city and letting those risk levels determine mask policies. But, other districts are forging ahead with different metrics. 

Mask wearing becomes a political issue

The Mat-Su school district has forged its own path since the beginning of the pandemic, as the largest district to continue with in-person learning while other districts closed their doors to students. 

Superintendent Randy Trani said that experience informs its current mask policy: each school is being treated as its own community and the district’s advisory team will determine if a classroom or a school needs to implement masking. This is how the district determined  whether to close classrooms or schools due to COVID spread last year. 

But, the district also heard strong feedback against masking, Trani said. The district conducted a survey and responses showed people were against the mask mandate by almost 7-1. So, the current optional policy is attempting to thread a needle. 

students sitting at desks
Students in a classroom at Redington Sr. Jr/Sr High School in Wasilla on September 21, 2020. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

“We think it meets our community where they’re at, more so than either ‘never any masks’ or ‘always masks’,” Trani said. “We’re trying to strike that middle ground, where we’re doing what they want, what they prefer, and maintaining a level of safety when needed.”

Trani said the district isn’t just deferring to the community. Implementing a mask mandate could present a different safety risk, he said.

“If we put into place a policy that’s going to keep a significant amount of our children out of school in Mat-Su, that comes with the risk of increased harm to kids,” Trani said. “It’s good for us to have kids in school, and we’re trying to do this balancing act where we have kids in school, and we maintain the ability to mask when needed.”

Deep divisions within communities have turned masking policies into a political debate across the country. 

Read more: Anchorage mayor, school district spar over face masks

In Florida, the Governor has threatened to withhold school funding and teachers’ salaries if school districts try to implement mask policies, while in Washington State the state schools superintendent said school funding would stop if they did not follow the ongoing statewide school mask mandate. 

In Alaska, neither the state education department, the commissioner, or the state board have legal authority to step in on this matter according to the department. And Governor Dunleavy has historically emphasized local control on the matter. A spokesperson for the governor said Dunleavy’s position hasn’t changed. 

Gov. Mike Dunleavy
Gov. Mike Dunleavy (Dunleavy Flckr)

In an op-ed posted on a conservative blog, Dunlevy wrote that the principles of limited government, and the law, prevent him from stepping in on local matters one way or the other: 

This doesn’t mean I’m not vehemently opposed to some of things that have occurred in our largest borough, but disagreement doesn’t absolve me of my oath of office. It certainly doesn’t remove Anchorage’s emergency health powers or allow me to toss aside the leaders voters elected.

In the interest of thoroughness, I have once again asked my legal team if there’s any place in the Alaska Constitution or statutes that allows me to intervene when I, or others, don’t like the policies being put forth by duly elected officials.

We’ve found no such authority, and for that we should all be thankful.

But some Alaskan communities remain split on the issue – debating mask wearing and even the severity of the pandemic. 

More children are getting sick with COVID

Nationally, children are making up a growing share of people who are getting sick with COVID as the vaccinated population increases. According to a recent report from the American Academy of Pediatrics about 20% of all COVID cases in Alaska and 2% of all COVID hospitalizations in Alaska since the pandemic began have been in children.

Alaska Health Department Epidemiologist Anna Frick said the data on masking is “surprisingly excellent” and masks are simple and effective. At the start of the pandemic most people heard that masking was about source control – protecting others by helping to prevent a person who knowingly or unknowingly has COVID from spreading it to other people. 

“But as data’s come out, it’s really shown that masks can do a great job of protecting you, the wearer, as well,” Frick said. “So it’s really, it’s attacking the problem from both sides.” 

Read more: How to keep your child safe from the delta variant  

Even though data shows appropriate masking works very well, implementation and policy is a trickier problem, Frick said, especially for schools. 

“One of the things with children, particularly, is that complicated sets of rules with lots of changes and guidance that’s changing all the time, is going to be just really hard for everyone to follow.” Some schools might prefer picking one policy and sticking to it – it’s just easier for everyone, Frick said. 

But vaccination also continues to be an important tool and is a main factor in determining mask policies. Frick said, in places where the vaccination rate is high and community transmission of COVID is low, the benefit of wearing a mask is fairly small. 

A variety of face masks and face shields displayed on a table at Huffman Elementary School.
The Anchorage School District displays the variety of face masks and face shields it will have available for students and staff. Photographed Monday, Nov. 2, 2020. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

“But in areas where community transmission is high, or where students aren’t able to be vaccinated due to age or there’s low uptake of vaccine, then the mask is probably providing a lot of benefit in those situations,” Frick said 

What will the rest of the school year look like?

More than half of all school districts in Alaska are following a universal mask policy.

Several districts, like the Lower Kuskokwim School District, which are using a universal mask policy specifically cite CDC and AAP guidance for masking schools, which recommends universal masking at all times, although both organizations say local conditions should factor into school communities decisions around mask wearing.   

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Some districts, like the Pelican School District are using a split policy where masking only applies in specific situations like hallways but not individual classrooms or applies to only part of the population whether it be only teachers, only visitors, only those under 12, or those over 12.

Most districts are maintaining the different learning options that became available during the pandemic last year, such as remote/virtual learning and homeschooling. But every district is making in-person learning a priority. The message that kids need to be in school is one that’s being echoed from the White House to the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics, all the way down to local school boards.  

School closure is likely to be a last resort for most districts, especially larger ones. But as districts try to navigate what’s become a difficult political battle, and knowing that mask policies will likely change throughout the school year, for some districts requiring masks is a way to help keep the doors open while for others educating kids can only happen if families have the option to go without them. 

Notes about the data: 

  • The analysis includes Mt. Edgecumbe High School in 'all districts' but the map does not display Mt. Edgecumbe as its own district.  
  • ‘Rural’ and ‘Urban’ districts are as defined by the state for the US Department of Education.
  • There were three (3) districts that did not have a mask policy posted online and did not respond to a request for information about their policy.
  • For districts that did not have a recently updated mask policy, this report uses the policy indicated by the district’s SMART START PLAN submitted to the state department of education.  
  • The plans are likely to change. 
  • District enrollment totals are from the 2020-2021 school year and include homeschool students which may have significantly changed a district’s enrollment from what it normally sees.
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