Local and national medical experts have recommended universal masking in schools to prevent the spread of the contagious Delta variant.
But the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District announced at a work session today it’s sticking to its policy of recommended masking districtwide and instead considering temporary mask mandates at individual schools depending on how those schools are impacted by COVID-19.
Superintendent Clayton Holland said Monday his administration is trying to thread the needle of what the board and community want.
“So trying to make this all work for the most unique district in the entire state of Alaska and possibly the nation is what I’m trying to do, what we’re trying to do," he said.
The school board decided last year to leave decisions about the school’s COVID-19 mitigation protocol to district leadership.
Administrators are getting recommendations on those policies from a newly convened medical advisory board of Kenai Peninsula healthcare workers and experts.
At their last meeting, all but one medical expert recommended districtwide universal masking, Holland said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, too, recommends staff and students wear masks inside, regardless of vaccination status.
On Monday, the district announced it will now require masks during indoor physical education classes. Largely, masks are highly recommended, not required.
The district also laid out a list of criteria for when certain schools might consider implementing universal mask policies in their buildings, including positivity rates of 3 percent or higher, high rates of student and staff absenteeism in schools, high rates of COVID-19 in local hospitals and high community case rates.
Assistant Superintendent Kari Dendurent said district administration will consider having a conversation about requiring masks with local school staff if four of five metrics are met.
But, she said, that will not automatically mean a policy is adopted.
“It is not an end all be all, but a reminder of a conversation," she said.
She said those mandates will be in effect for two weeks and then either extended or paused based on additional criteria.
In the last week, KPBSD reported over 100 new positive cases and almost 450 close contacts among more than 9,000 students and staff.
Per district policy, close contacts exposed to COVID-19 do not have to quarantine when all involved were wearing masks. That’s been part of the justification for enacting universal masking at certain schools, among high rates of student absenteeism.
Still, masking in the district has been a contentious issue, garnering hours of testimony from parents at board meetings. The Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor is among outspoken critics of requiring masks in schools.
Holland said Monday he's received email threats over the COVID-19 mitigation plan.
"I took [decision making] on early …. with the intent that I did not want the board to take abuse on this like what happened last year," Holland said. "And I’m doing my best to represent the desires of this board."
Members of the school board, too, are divided on the issue.
Matt Morse said Monday he thinks the district should be following public opinion in its decision making. He says parents are worried about how their kids are impacted by masking.
“We knew what people wanted and what the expectation was but we did something to the contrary," he said. "And that’s not showing situational awareness.”
Board member Virginia Morgan said she thinks it’s important to consider recommendations from the experts and the effects of school cases on the wider community.
“We can debate about the effects on children. But these children all go home to families," she said.
Masking policies, and COVID-19 case rates, vary across the biggest districts on the road system.
The Mat-Su Borough School District is requiring masks at some schools and classrooms. The Fairbanks North Star Borough School District is switching from optional to universal masking this week.
The Anchorage School District has been requiring masks since the beginning of the year. As of Monday, it was reporting 320 active COVID-19 cases across its almost 50,000 students and staff.
You can read the updates to KPBSD's mitigation plan in full here.