A damaged sticker on a door at Thunder Mountain High School reminds people to social distance and wear masks inside the building. The Juneau School District Board of Education on Tuesday voted to make wearing masks optional in schools. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

A damaged sticker on a door at Thunder Mountain High School reminds people to social distance and wear masks inside the building. The Juneau School District Board of Education on Tuesday voted to make wearing masks optional in schools. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

Masks again optional in Juneau schools

School board unanimously waives normal rules and votes to end brief return to mandated masks.

This article has been updated to include additional information.

On this occasion there was widespread agreement about the intensely divisive mandating of facemasks in local schools: a new mandate rushed into effect on Monday was plagued with problems.

So on Tuesday the Juneau Board of Education rushed to reverse it, although opinions about what the new policy means for the final three weeks of the school year remain as split as ever.

“The last couple of days have been less than ideal in many of our settings,” Superintendent Bridget Weiss told the board during a special meeting Tuesday night. “The last two years we worked to make decisions methodically, and let the public and students know why before implementing them. We got caught in this situation and it was a more abrupt situation than before, and that caused a lot of challenges.”

Emails and text notifications were sent Saturday to parents and staff stating the mask mandate was being revived because The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had increased Juneau’s community risk level in its weekly assessment. But it turns out the CDC’s recently-revised guidelines based on infection rates and available care in designated zones.were inaccurate.

“What we have learned over the weekend and in digging into CDC metrics is it does draw from a broader area, including hospitals from Petersburg to Yakutat, so it’s not a Juneau-specific metric,” Board President Elizabeth “Ebett” Siddon said at the beginning of Tuesday’s two-hour special board meeting.

The new mask-optional policy still allows the superintendent to require masks ”in certain situations, including but not limited to” people in contact indoors with another person identified as “high risk” for severe disease and people exposure to someone with COVID-19.

“If masking is required in school settings, it will generally be implemented from individual close contacts to programs, to classrooms, to building-level based on circumstances,” the new policy states.

It became clear during the opening minutes the board intended to reverse the mandate with all members speaking in favor of doing so, and agreeing to waive the requirement of separate meetings for first and final consideration of such measures. But first the board got an earful for more than 90 minutes from people about the snafus of the past two days, concerns about the remaining school year and events such as graduation, and how emotions often criticized as misguided are infecting the policymaking process.

A major problem of the short-lived mandate was relying on individual teachers and staff to enforce it, said Chris Heidemann, president of the Juneau Education Association and a teacher at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé.

“It creates unnecessary conflict between staff and their families, as well as the community at large,” he said. “It also creates conflict between staff members within the building. We need explicit directives and we need your full support in enforcing them.”

Holly Ireno, a teacher at Thunder Mountain High School, said the policy created confusion about numerous things such as recording attendance and assigning coursework since students were allowed to stay in the commons area instead of wearing masks in class – which itself caused a problem with teachers’ authority.

“I had quite a few students that saw me holding masks, and said ‘F this’ and walked away,” she said.

There were also numerous apologies to board members for the abusive reactions to policies from people during the COVID-19 pandemic and from the board members to those adversely affected by the hastily abandoned mandate – although anger from both about the situation going forward was also expressed.

”We were doing our best with the information at the time,” Board Member Will Muldoon said. “I don’t think it was my intention or the board’s to have this level of disruption.”

The CDC changed its metrics earlier this month and the result was cases outside Juneau triggered the change in status and thus the district’s automatic revival of mandatory masks, said Gail Moorehead, senior director of quality at Bartlett Regional Hospital.

“We identified that Sitka right now has had a few extra admissions in their particular hospital,” she said. “With Juneau’s population and the population of our health service area, basically if there are four patients…that tips us over to the moderate or high level.”

Bartlett is averaging about one patient a day who’s being diagnosed and treated for COVID-19, with the last spike occurring about a month ago when three people were treated simultaneously, Moorehead said. She said elective surgeries, allowing patients to have visitors and reopening the cafeteria to the public are now occurring mostly normally, although some precautions remain such as mandatory facemasks for the sake of staff and vulnerable patients.

“We anticipate we will not be seeing major spikes in our Covid numbers if we are trending the same way,” she said. “However, we are having our cruise ship season start so that’s anyone’s guess as to what it means for our community.”

One of the key provisions of the district’s new mask-optional policy is it removes automatic triggers for mandating them again, Siddon said.

“It’s a more strategic, more targeted method where we are responding to known cases in our communications and doing what we can according to the CDC framework to limit the spread,” she said.

As has been the case throughout the pandemic, the revised policy still leaves many on both sides unhappy.

Denali Zantop, a senior at JDHS, said her main concern is prom and/graduation being canceled for the second straight year due to infections caused by people not wearing masks. She said people in close contact with her when she had COVID-19 chose to go to school anyway and the virus is likely to spread with cruise ship passengers arriving.

“I think it’s reasonable we can continue wearing masks six hours a day for 25 more days,” she said.

Allowing the superintendent sole authority to require masks in specific situations angered many mandate opponents who argued the provision is broad enough to reinstitute on a widespread basis. Those favoring optional masks also noted mandates are largely vanishing nationwide, improved treatment including an all-ages medication are now available and many children are experiencing ill effects of being forced to wear masks.

“My daughter has been suffering because of masks…she has dizzy spells,” said Melehoko Maake, mother of a student at Floyd Dryden Middle School. “She does not like to be singled out and will not speak up for herself. But really, truly when she comes home every day she complains about having to wear the mask.”

Board members expressed a desire at the beginning of the meeting to reverse the mandate quickly so the superintendent could send a notice to parents and staff in time to prepare for school Wednesday. But they went to extra lengths to ensure everyone wanting to speak at the online meeting was heard, rejecting a suggestion to trim the usual two-minute speaking time to one minute due to the number of people interested, and then extending the public comment period by another 20 minutes when people raised their virtual hands just after the initial period was closed.

But while the board members were frequently conciliatory for the aggravation caused by the short-lived mandate, Clerk Emil Mackey offered a few blunt words of his own just before the official vote ending the policy. He criticized the “fundamental misunderstanding” of many

mandate opponents claiming people wanting to protect themselves can opt for masks (the masks protect others from the wearer) and “I’m angry students saying ‘F you’ were allowed to remain at school that afternoon.”

“If a student wears an offensive shirt we have the right to send that student home,” he said. “A policy is only as good as our will to enforce…the biggest reason for the failure (of this mandate) was looking for reasons not to enforce the policy in effect.”

Mackey also said “if you can’t take criticism don’t take this job,” but “we cannot let the board be held hostage by threats and mean words.” Ultimately, however, he said the process resulted in a generally favorable outcome for the remainder of the school year.

“It isn’t what I consider the optimal policy, but people put a lot of work into it and it’s hard to get seven people to agree on anything,” he said.

Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com.

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