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Tok-based School District Foresees Requiring Facemasks When Classes Begin on Aug. 24

The Alaska Gateway School District plans to require facemasks when classes there begin in two weeks, due to a spike in COVID-19 cases in Tok and other district communities. But officials with two other rural Interior school districts plan to only recommend, not require, facemasks, despite recent upticks in covid cases in those areas.

The Delta variant of the coronavirus has sent the number of COVID-19 cases in Alaska soaring over the past couple of weeks. In response, school district officials statewide are wrestling with whether to require students and adults to wear facemasks while in district facilities. The Tok-based Alaska Gateway School District is one of the few that’s ready to embrace masks.

“We’re probably going to have to start wearing masks, right away,” District Superintendent Scott MacManus said Tuesday. He says that could change, if the current surge of covid cases in the sparsely populated region subsides. But he’s not counting on that.

“Right now, in our area, we have 45 active cases that we’re aware of. So, for us, that’s a large number,” he said.

MacManus says Tuesday those numbers are worrying members of health advisory teams that monitor covid cases in seven communities within the district.

“With the advent of the Delta variant, these communities are becoming quite alarmed,” he said. “Rightfully so.”

Elsewhere around the Interior, a total of 10 cases were reported over the past week in the Denali Borough. In response, the Denali Preschool and Learning Center in Healy is requiring children and adults in that facility to wear facemasks. But the Denali Borough School District plans to only recommend, but not require facemasks, for students and adults in district buildings.

That’s also the policy in the Delta Junction-based Delta-Greely School District, where classes began on Wednesday. Three cases of covid were reported in that region over the past week.

The superintendents of those districts say most residents don’t like facemasks and generally don’t support school policies requiring them.

MacManus says most of the people in his district don’t like masks either, but they generally support the policy.

“I mean, nobody likes it,” he said. “I don’t like it. But I think that the majority feels that when it’s necessary, they’re willing to do it.”

But MacManus says facemasks are only one of the Alaska Gateway district’s countermeasures against covid. Another is a stringent testing program that’ll be in place for teacher in-service training that begins next week.

“All of our staff – every single person who walks in the building for in-service – will be tested before they enter the building.”

MacManus says when classes begin on August 24th, school officials will keep an eye out for students who show signs of covid symptoms. And all employees and some students, whose parents have consented, will be tested on a random basis.

“Some parents won’t give that permission – which is certainly their right,” he said. “And so, what we’ll do there is the child would then have to go home.”

The district’s other countermeasure is encouraging district employees and students to get covid vaccinations. MacManus says the district will offer incentives for those who are reluctant to get the shots, like 25-dollar gift cards for students and a vacation getaway raffle for employees.

“Last year, we had a weeklong trip to Hawaii, for two,” he said. “All paid.”

MacManus says he and other district officials are determined to do whatever is needed to protect its students and employees and the public, from COVID-19.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.