Denali Borough to require masking in schools

A blocky school house with a circular logo.
Denali Borough School District officials have halted in-classroom instruction at Tri-Valley Valley School and the Denali Borough School District’s two other schoolhouses for at least one week. (Credit Denali Borough)

Beginning Monday, the Denali Borough School District board will again require everyone who enters a district building to wear a facemask to curb the spread of coronavirus. The district school board adopted the policy Tuesday over the opposition of some area residents.

School board members voted 7-to-2 to require universal masking, with Kristen Randall and Nikki DeMers dissenting.

The board voted after several people spoke. Some voiced strong opposition, while others supported the policy. Opponents include Tri-Valley Fire Department Chief Rob Graham, who suggested the pandemic may be overblown because he’s never transported a patient who was known to be COVID-positive. He said those who’ve been advising the district to mandate masks aren’t motivated by a concern for public health.

“I’d also like to make you guys realize that like, those people that come in here and talk about that, they’re getting paid with COVID dollars,” Graham said. “And so they’re pushing that agenda.”

Residents who support the facemask mandate include Emily Tuttle, a businessperson and mother who said she withdrew her child from a district school because its policy made the wearing of facemasks optional.

“Masking is most effective when every person wears one,” Tuttle said.

Superintendent Dan Polta said in an interview Thursday that those who spoke during the sometimes-heated public testimony all have strong feelings about the issue. And he said that all are motivated by a common desire for their children to have the best education possible in a safe environment.

“I believe everybody wants that for their children,” he said. “And I hold that when I hear their comments — whether they’re angry, whether they’re vitriolic, whether they’re kind.”

Polta said he’s been talking with school district officials in Anchorage and Fairbanks on how they’ve managed facemask requirements. And he’s now working on details of the facemask policy that he said will be much like the one the Healy-based school district had last school year. For example, whether to require athletes to wear facemasks during practices and competition.

“Last year, we were not masking during our games,” he said. “And so I need to kind of take a look and go ‘Would we continue that practice? Would we go back to a more stringent practice of requiring the masks during games?’ ”

Polta says board members who voted for universal face masking cited the surge in COVID cases statewide that’s filled Alaska’s hospitals and reduced care for all patients. He said the members hope when they review the policy in November, the surge will have subsided.

“We think that could be different,” he said, “and we also really believe that in November we’ll also most likely have that vaccine availability for kids 5 to 11.”

The board’s decision makes Denali Borough schools the second rural district in the Interior to require facemasks, the other being the Tok-based Alaska Gateway School District. Elsewhere in the Interior, the Delta Junction-based Delta Greely School District is maintaining its policy of recommending but not requiring facemasks, despite a sharp rise in COVID cases over the past couple of weeks.

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Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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