Masking on School Board Agenda Tonight
Policy voted on September 7 is up for review
Masks for schoolchildren will be on the agenda tonight (Tuesday, December 7th) for the Board of Education of the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District. The board will decide if universal masking will continue after students return from Winter Break in January.
The board voted in September to require children in classrooms to wear facecoverings as COVID-19 cases began to spike in Alaska, including hospitalizations of children.
The District started the school year August 18, navigating a cumbersome closure process in order to protect students from catching COVID from their classmates. Each time a child tested positive for the disease, classmates were sent home to quarantine in case they also were infectious. Whole classes, whole grade levels, and more than once, a whole school was closed and students and teachers had to meet remotely. Absences topped 2,000 students per day.
The mask requirement was put back in place on September 7th to take effect September 13th, and soon after, cases reported by the school district began to fall.
The district’s Covid-19 data dashboard shows a 7-day average of 15 cases today after hitting a low of only eight new cases districtwide last week – that was the lowest 7-day case average since school started in August.
The district’s statement on tonight’s agenda says the administration recommends facemasks be optional starting in the third quarter. Charter schools, with local Academy Policy Committees will make their own decisions for their schools. And schools on military installations will follow command directives.
It was the military’s readiness needs that swayed the board in a 5-2 vote at the September 7th board meeting to put the mask mandate back in place. Colonel Nathan S. Surrey, Post Representative on the board read a joint letter from the commanders of Eielson Air Force Base and Fort Wainwright, asking the school district to use universal masking. Colonel Stuart Williamson, the Base Representative to the board, made an impassioned speech about school policies keeping military parents away from duty.
"Just the school age program impacted 40 or more military members who are not able to accomplish the mission because they're home taking care of their sick children," WIlliamson said at the Sept. 7 meeting.
Masks were required during the 2020-2021 school year as they became available. At a June 1st meeting, the school board voted that masks be immediately optional, even though summer school had already started, and vaccines were not available for children under 12.
After voting to return to universal masking in classrooms on Sept. 7th, the board opted to revisit the requirement at the December 7th meeting, tonight.
The district’s statement on tonight’s agenda refers to a big change since the beginning of the year and that is vaccinations. Vaccines for children ages 5-11 will have been available for about eight weeks before kids return to school after winter break on January 4. But there is no requirement that students be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Chief School Administrator Karen Melin says another big change is the availability of testing.
"Since October 5th, we've been able to admin her 1700 COVID tests across our different testing sites that has allowed us to catch a lot of things before it ever gets into our school environment."
The district has set up testing sites in North Pole, at the district building on 5th Avenue in downtown Fairbanks, and at West Valley High School. Also, Melin says the district has ordered 1,000 quick antigen tests kits.
"And we have ordered them and they're on their way in home testing kits for families to use in their own home. So they don't even have to leave their house to go to a testing center."
Melin says the district will continue the mitigation plan set up at the beginning of the school year, that includes putting the masks back on if a classroom or a school should have an outbreak of cases.