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There are new rules for when masks will become optional at Unalaska schools

Maggie Nelson
Ultimately, board members chose to loosen the school’s masking requirements, even though school administration did not recommend changing their mitigation plan.

Unalaska students still must wear masks at school, even while the city is operating at its low COVID-19 risk level and only encouraging masking indoors.

The Unalaska school board decided Tuesday that the district will drop to its low transmission level and students can stop wearing masks in school buildings when the city’s COVID-19 case count drops to zero and the Emergency Operations Center advises the change. Unalaska had four active, community-acquired COVID-19 cases by Wednesday.

The new rules are a shift from Unalaska City School District’s earlier policy.

The school board voted 5-1 to alter the district’s mitigation plan at its Tuesday meeting.

Previously, the district would only move to its low transmission level after the city had gone two weeks with no community-acquired cases of the virus.

Now, as soon as the city reports zero community cases on itsCOVID-19 dashboard, the district will drop to “low,” and masks will become optional for students and staff starting at the beginning of the following school week, to give staff and families time to adjust.

Newcomer Kerry Mahoney was the only board member to vote against the change.

Board member Bob Cummings voted for the changes. He said he thinks it’s an effective and simple way of communicating where the district is at, in terms of transmission levels.

I think the 14-day waiting period is sort of a relic from maybe in the early days of the pandemic,” Cummings said. “I think utilizing the dashboard makes it transparent — an easy place for parents to go. They don't have to go back and look at previous news releases or anything like that.”

Joni Scott is the district’s preschool teacher. She spoke at Tuesday night’s meeting in support of required masking for all ages. She said her preschoolers haven’t had issues keeping their masks on.

In preschool, we are close together — there is no sitting three feet apart at tables the entire day because it's not developmentally appropriate for those children to be sitting, blocked at a desk,” Scott said. “Because preschoolers have no space and no boundaries, their masks keep their sneezes and their coughs to themselves.”

But parent Monica Henning said she wants more autonomy in the decision.

“I am 100% for unmasking the children, and letting the parents decide,” Henning said.

Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that when students are wearing masks, a close contact is someone who has been less than three feet from an infected student for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more, over a 24-hour period. But if students are unmasked, that distance increases to six feet.

High School Principal Jim Wilson said the school follows CDC guidance for contact tracing, so the distance defining a close contact increases when students are unmasked. If masks become optional, Wilson said, there would likely be several contacts and therefore several quarantined students every single time a student tests positive — especially at the junior high and high school, where students travel between classrooms and groups.

“Let’s just say one seventh grader has COVID, and then five or six are closer than six feet of them,” Wilson said. “Then that student goes to a different classroom with a different group of students — they’re within five to six feet of them. Maybe an entire classroom would shut down, but we’d certainly have six, seven, eight individuals — every time we had a positive case — who’d be identified as close contacts, who’d then need to quarantine.”

Ultimately, board members chose to loosen the school’s masking requirements, even though school administration did not recommend changing their mitigation plan.

The district is currently operating at the medium transmission level and masks are required.

At its Tuesday meeting, the school board also swore in three new members: Kerry Mahoney, Danielle Williams and Nicole Bice.

All three ran unopposed in Unalaska’s municipal election earlier this month. Mahoney will serve a three-year term, Williams’ term will expire in 2023 and Bice will serve just a single year.

Hailing from Southwest Washington, Maggie moved to Unalaska in 2019. She's dabbled in independent print journalism in Oregon and completed her Master of Arts in English Studies at Western Washington University — where she also taught Rhetoric and Composition courses.
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