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Tok-based District Begins School Year with Indoor-facemask Mandate

KUAC file photo
The novel coronavirus causes the disease known as COVID-19.

Despite 'pretty lukewarm reception,' most district residents OK anti-COVID measures, Superintendent Says

The Tok-based Alaska Gateway School District has been requiring students to wear facemasks ever since classes began two weeks ago, to fight the spread of COVID-19 that’s been surging thoughout the eastern Interior. But two other rural school districts in the region are sticking with policies that recommend but don’t not require masks.

A month ago, when the number of covid cases statewide was beginning to spike, Alaska Gateway School District Superintendent Scott MacManus predicted his students would be wearing facemasks when classes began on Aug. 24, unless the numbers of cases were declining. But they weren’t, so masks are now required for anyone entering any district building.

Students in the Alaska Gateway School District are required to wear masks in common areas indoors and classroom where minimum social distance can't be maintained.

“When we’re in common areas, we’re wearing masks,” he said. “When we are in classrooms and can maintain an appropriate social distance, then we don’t wear masks.”

MacManus says that policy was met with a bit of the usual grumbling.  “Pretty lukewarm reception. There was some chatter on Faceebook, but beyond that, nothing.”

But he says overall, staff and students and their parents have gone along with the facemask policy, because it’s helped the district prevent transmission of covid within schools.

“The very first couple days of school, we caught a couple and they tested positive for covid.”

MacManus said in an interview Tuesday that the precautions have worked like they’re supposed to – tests detected the covid-positive students, and universal masking and other hygenic measures protected students and staff so they could safely keep the school open and classes in session.

“So far, we haven’t had any transmission in the building,” he said. “We’ve had covid brought into the building, but none has been transmitted in the building.”

Last Friday, the same sort of situation occurred in the Healy-based Denali Borough School District. Superintendent Dan Polta said he had to keep students in two Tri-Valley Elementary classes home so district officials could conduct contact-tracing after a covid-positive case was reported at that school.

Aside from that, Polta says his district has been able to keep students in their classrooms since school began on Aug. 25. He said in an email Tuesday that the district recommends but doesn’t require facemasks, and he says it practices the usual suite of precautions that includes frequent hand-washing and deep-cleaning of schoolhouses.

That’s basically what the Delta Junction-based Delta Greely School District has been doing since classes there began August 12th. Superintendent Shaun Streyle said in an email Tuesday that the district so far has been able to keep students in classrooms and hasn’t had any covid problems that require reverting to online instruction.

MacManus says each district has to develop policies that most parents and community members can support. He says nobody likes some provisions of those policies, especially mandatory facemasks. But he sys they’ve proven to be an important component of covid-mitigation policies.

“The number-one thing you can do is get vaccinated,” he said. “The number-two thing you can do is maintain a social distance. Number three thing you can do is keep clean, keep your air-filtration, keep your hands washed. And the fourth thing you can do is wear a mask.”

MacManus says if all goes well, district officials will consider easing up on the mandatory masking within a couple of weeks.

Tim Ellis has been working as a KUAC reporter/producer since 2010. He has more than 30 years experience in broadcast, print and online journalism.