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UCSD mask mandates stay put, following bustling board meeting

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Maggie Nelson
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KUCB
UCSD board members voted to make minor changes to the district’s COVID-19 mitigation plan. School administrators will still be able to enforce mask mandates, following guidance from local health officials.

The Unalaska school board decided not to change the district’s mandatory mask rules on Thursday, following nearly three hours of contentious public testimony.

Dozens of community members — including parents, students, teachers and local health officials — crammed into the Unalaska High School Library for the meeting. Some said there is no need for masks in schools. Others argued that with COVID-19 cases soaring, masking is more important than ever.

“I am begging you to allow universal masking in the schools to get through this spike,” said Iliuliuk Family and Health Services Medical Director Dr. Megan Sarnecki at the special meeting.

Mike Parker is a parent to students in the district. He said that students and families should be able to choose not to wear masks.

“[Our kids] need to be able to go out there and socialize,” Parker said. “Their immune system is stronger than ours. I got COVID. I’m alive. I’m a survivor.”

Ultimately, Unalaska City School District board members voted to make minor changes to the district’s COVID-19 mitigation plan. School administrators will still be able to enforce mask mandates, following guidance from local health officials.

The board’s decision comes as community-acquired COVID-19 cases surge on the island. Earlier this week, school administrators raised the district’s risk threshold to medium and required masking in school buildings for the first time in roughly two months.

The district’s decision drew the large crowd to the normally quiet high school library Thursday afternoon.

Eagle’s View Elementary Achigaalux̂ resource teacher Charity Kitsyuk was one of several staff members to speak at the meeting. She has previously spoken against the school’s mask mandates and reiterated her concerns about the challenges of teaching special education when students are required to wear face coverings.

“Wearing a mask for six to eight hours a day is a medical device,” Kitsyuk said. “There are consequences for children: decreased development, difficulty learning, headaches and speech delays – and I’ve seen it.”

High school junior and student athlete Karina Villamor was one of a few teens that stepped up to the podium to speak on behalf of the student body.

“I would wear a mask, get vaccinated and social distance, if that’s the price I have to pay,” Villamor said. “The importance of my school, my health, my peers’ health and my teachers’ health is beyond being uncomfortable while getting my nose swabbed twice a week or rubbing from my mask.”

According to High School Principal Jim Wilson, 28 percent of students were out sick on Thursday. He said it was a difficult decision to reinstate the mask mandate but he stands behind the choice.

“I’m never going to try to control what happens outside of school hours, but in school, I know I have to do what I can to protect our students,” Wilson said. “That’s what my job is.”

Under the revised mitigation plan, the district will now look to local health officials or a COVID advisory committee when determining district-wide transmission levels, rather than consulting with the island’s Emergency Operations Center, as it had previously.

The EOC “stood down” last week after Unalaska’s Emergency Declaration – which gave the city the authority to mandate protective measures – expired on New Year’s Eve.

School board president Jolene Longo said the advisory committee will be co-chaired by board member Bob Cummings and will be made up of a group of volunteers, including staff, teachers, parents and students, plus members from the fishing industry and local health officials.

Also on Thursday, board members voted unanimously to keep schools open under the high transmission level unless advised by local health officials. They also voted to allow mask exemptions for medical needs and religious beliefs. That exemption will not go into effect until school officials consult with the district’s lawyer.

The City of Unalaska had reported 46 active COVID-19 cases on the island when the special meeting was called. By Friday morning, that number had doubled.

As community cases rise, Superintendent Robbie Swint Jr. said the school district may move up to the high transmission level, but that depends on what clinic officials advise.

Swint said staff who don’t comply with the district’s mask requirements next week will be sent home without pay. He said students who refuse to wear masks may be put on suspension, but no final decision had been made as of Friday afternoon.

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