Grappling with school closure and masking, Mat-Su schools hold tight to current mitigation plan

A person speaking in front of a class
A teacher addresses students at Redington Sr. Jr/Sr High School in Wasilla on September 21, 2020. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Officials in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District have been busy. It’s the largest district in the state without a universal mask mandate. And two weeks into the school year, 11 of the district’s 46 schools had moved to requiring masking due to COVID-19 spread, according to the Mat-Su district’s dashboard, and two schools are closed.

Even though the district doesn’t have a universal mask requirement as recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Mat-Su District Superintendent Randy Trani said the district’s plan is working.

“When we put masks on, that’s not a failure of the plan, that’s the plan working,” Trani said. “When we have to close a school, that’s also us being responsible. We don’t want to just keep going and going and going without recognizing that something has happened. But our goal is to not shut schools down.”

Glacier View School and Butte Elementary School are listed as closed with students switched to remote learning.

Trani told the school board, at a recent meeting, that the district didn’t act fast enough to require masks at Butte Elementary. Within a week, case counts in the school went from 10 to 42. The district closed the school for two weeks.

“We shut Butte down,” Trani said. “It looked like it’s doubling time was about every two days. If we left it open for another week, we would have probably had everybody in the whole school who possibly could have been infected.”

Related: Bus driver shortage caused by COVID-19 disrupts service at several Mat-Su schools

Trani said that was a learning experience for the district and he anticipates moving more quickly to require masks at schools in the future. 

He told the board that one school, Dena’ina Elementary, has begun to see case counts go down after masks were implemented and he expects the school to be able to get rid of the mask policy soon.

The district invited Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink to the board meeting to help make the case. Zink said it was the first time she addressed the board directly. She pointed out the struggle that hospitals are currently facing. 

“Honestly for me, the worst point in this pandemic is where we’re at right now. I never wanted to see our hospitals where they are right now. And it’s not a good place,” Zink said. “We’ve unfortunately already had tremendous loss, but I think that’s going to get a lot worse if we don’t all do our part to slow it down.”

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Zink and a team of health officials spent nearly an hour answering questions from the school board and the community. 

But, despite increased case counts and the dire message from public health officials, Trani said the district doesn’t have any current plans to significantly change its mitigation strategy or to require students and staff to mask up in all school buildings.

“We don’t anticipate any changes, but we are learning machines,” he said.

Trani said the district’s plan has attracted more students to in-person learning. More than 4,000 students from the district’s online program, and online programs from other parts of the state, enrolled in in-person learning in the Mat-Su this year, Trani said.

“That’s a super important statistic for us,” he said. “People read our mitigation plan and they saw how we operated last year. And they’ve decided to come back to in person learning by the thousands.”

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Getting and keeping kids in school is the district’s main priority, Trani said, but the challenges are still there. And the biggest one right now, he said, isn’t student COVID cases, but adult cases. Staffing levels are strained.

“At last check last night, we had more than 100 absences that had not been filled for today across the district,” Trani said on Friday. “That’s not just teaching staff and support staff. And that’s a number that’s kind of unprecedented for us.”

Trani said he’s hopeful that this spike in cases will trend downward soon. 

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