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Denali Borough Schools to Require Facemasks Beginning Monday

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KUAC file photo
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Tri-Valley and other Denali Borough schools will require everyone to wear masks indoors while in classrooms and common areas.

School Board to Review Masking Policy in November

The Denali Borough School District board will again require everyone who enters a district building to wear a facemask, beginning Monday, to prevent the spread of coronavirus. The district school board adopted the policy Tuesday over 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 strongly in opposition, others in support of the policy. Opponents include former 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. And he suspects 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 mom who says 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 interview Thursday that those who spoke during the sometimes-heated public testimony all have strong feelings about the issue. And he says 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 says 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 says will be much like the one the Healy-based school district had last school year. Like, 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 facemasking cited the surge in covid cases statewide that’s filled Alaska’s hospitals and reduced care for all patients, covid or no. He says the members hope when they review the policy in November, the surge will have subsided.

“So 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.

Editor's note: This story has been revised to clarify that Rob Graham is the former chief of the Tri-Valley Fire Department.