With five weeks remaining before summer break, the Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor is publicly challenging the school district on its COVID-19 mitigation protocols.
Mayor Charlie Pierce has long been an advocate of keeping mask-wearing a personal choice and opening the peninsula up to business as usual amid coronavirus-induced closures.
He turned his focus to the school district last week, saying in a Facebook post “The time has come for us to get rid of all Mask Mandates [sic] in schools.”
Pierce — who works in the same building as District Superintendent John O’Brien — repeated those sentiments on local talk radio the next day, where he likened the virus to the flu and said he wants the peninsula back to normal.
Pierce’s appearance initiated a talk radio dispute with O’Brien. In a public letter and on KSRM on Monday, O’Brien said he was surprised the mayor didn't first come to him with his concerns and reiterated that the district is setting its protocol based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The district currently requires all students and staff wear masks indoors.
It’s not the first time district and borough administrations have butted heads over the district’s COVID-19 mitigation protocols. James Baisden, Pierce’s outgoing chief of staff, led parents in demanding a full reopening of schools late last year.
The district and borough are in the middle of negotiating a budget for fiscal year 2022. The process has been tense, with the mayor and district disagreeing on how much the borough should provide.
Pierce is traveling and was not available for an interview. But Baisden said this back-and-forth won’t interfere with the budget process.
“We can have opposite views," he said. "We’re viewing one group of people who think that they’re completely off balance, they’re going to say they’re on the other side of it. But the budget process doesn’t have anything to do with that.”
Baisden doubled down on his position Monday on KSRM. He and Pierce have no direct authority over district protocol. But co-host Jesse Bjorkman, who’s also a teacher in the school district and a member of the borough assembly, said on that show he thinks a public disagreement “doesn’t help the education environment at all, when kids are confused about what they’re supposed to be doing.”
Bjorkman said he’s grateful to have students back in the classroom and that, for the most part, the classroom learning environment is not greatly impacted by the presence of masks.
“As a teacher, I was disappointed to see that the mayor chose social media to continue to attack the actions of the school district leadership, when many other avenues remain open," Bjorkman said. "They have been productive in the past.”
Baisden said he’s heard mask wearing has been hard on students and sees a requirement as a matter of control.
“We’ve still got another four to six weeks of our children being in classrooms, let’s make this last six weeks as best as we can and give them the environment they deserve," he said.
The district has been gradually loosening requirements, though not as much as advocates would like. Most recently, it relaxed its mask protocol for outdoor activities, like recess.
It’s all happening while COVID-19 case rates on the Kenai Peninsula are creeping up, into the state’s high-risk tier. Meanwhile, the rate of vaccination on the peninsula is plateauing.
“We have had a rise in cases on the peninsula in some of the areas and definitely in some of our schools," said District Communications Director Pegge Erkeneff. "We have one school, for example, that has three positives in the last week. But it’s not in-school transmission. So we know the mitigation plans are working and we will be keeping schools open until the end of the school year, which is going to be in five weeks.”
Erkeneff said the district is gearing up to do an in-person graduation and hopes to re-evaluate its mask policy next school year.
“Hopefully by the time school begins in August, enough people will be vaccinated and we’ll be able to open up the schools without any face coverings," she said. "I know that we have the survey out right now and Mr. Holland, who will be our new superintendent, has the intent to do so if it’s safe to do so.”
Pierce has said he hopes to find common ground with the new superintendent, Clayton Holland.
All big school districts in the state, including the Anchorage School District, require face coverings in buildings. In the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District, face coverings are required for students in third grade or older.