When students return to Juneau’s Public Schools on Monday, staff and students will wear masks inside but have the option to drop them when outside on school grounds.
In a packed Zoom meeting Tuesday night, parents and community members on both sides of the masking issue made passionate pleas before school board members voted unanimously in favor of the mask mandate to start the school year.
“Our number one priority is that we are open five days a week, all day. That’s our priority. We want to make sure that everything we do lines up with that goal. It’s hard work,” said Bridget Weiss, superintendent. “We have a collective responsibility to sustain in-person learning.”
School board candidate Thomas Buzzard was one of the community members who urged school officials to drop the requirement and let parents decide what to do.
“Sadly, some will get sick and die but there is no other way to beat this. Be reasonable and unmask the kids and let it move through,” he said, adding that he supports some mitigation measures, such as handwashing. “Being on the school board does not include tyranny.”
Public weighs in
Among the 15 callers, nine opposed the mask policy and six supported it.
Before opening the virtual floor to public comment, Elizabeth Siddon, school board president, said that board members had been researching the issue and reading email messages from the community, totaling 232 messages about the policy.
Siddon added that the American Academy of Pediatrics and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention both recommend that children wear masks at school.
Paul DeSlover urged the school board to maintain the mask policy.
“Kids are resilient,” he said. “A lot of the issues are not with the children but are with the parents.”
Stacy Diouf, principal at SayèikGastineau Community School, said that masks worked well when in-person school resumed in the spring of 2021.
“We could smile and enjoy each other’s company while staying safe,” she said.
Those opposed cited mental health concerns, with many saying there is insufficient evidence that masks are effective. Some suggested that sickness is part of life and should be allowed to play out naturally as the social and educational costs of masks are too high.
Sam Smith, a local veterinarian with Tongass Veterinary Services, said that masks don’t work.
“I am a doctor and as all doctors know, the masks don’t work. It’s analogous to throwing sand through a chain-link fence,” he said.
Smith said that parents promoting masks had “irrational fears” and that kids are unlikely to get COVID and that those who do are unlikely to die from it. “Our rights don’t die when these irrational fears begin. The mask is nothing more than a PC virtue signaler,” he said.
What the experts say
The school district’s guidelines are consistent with the mitigation strategies in place for the City and Borough of Juneau and reflect the advice of the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
There is a near-universal expert consensus on the efficacy of masks. The World Health Organization, the CDC, and the American Academy of Pediatrics all encourage mask use to stop the spread of COVID-19.
“Masks remain a simple but powerful tool to protect against COVID-19, especially for children too young to get the vaccine yet,” reads the website of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
According to the New York Times, 118,067 new COVID cases were reported across the country on Tuesday, an 86% increase over the past 14 days. In addition, 608 deaths were reported, a 102% increase. Cases rates are highest in states with low vaccination rates and weak mitigation measures.
City leaders reported 93 active cases in Juneau and a 3% positivity rate over a seven-day rolling average. The community risk level is currently high and city officials recently re-implemented a citywide mask requirement and other COVID-19 mitigation measures in light of rising case levels in the borough.
Weiss said that she understands that masks generate a variety of opinions and that she expects mask guidance and policy to change as the year goes on.
“Where we are now is not where we will be in six months,” she said.
“The decision tonight is not written in stone. This is not a decision that will last all year. Please know that decision tonight is not in perpetuity,” Siddon said before opening the floor to public comment.
In a phone interview Wednesday morning, Kristin Bartlett, chief of staff for the district, said that various factors would affect masking policy going forward. She said that the community risk level, the presence of the virus in schools and whether children under age 12 can be vaccinated are all factors that will weigh into future decisions.
Currently, vaccines are available to anyone over the age of 12. Federal officials are expected to approve COVID vaccines for younger children later this year.
• Contact reporter Dana Zigmund at email@example.com or 907-308-4891.