Recommended, Not Required: UCSD Students Have The Option To Wear Masks When They Return To School
When school starts next week in Unalaska, students won't be required to wear masks.
That decision comes after the Unalaska City School Board finalized a COVID-19 mitigation plan for the upcoming school year on Monday. The plan does recommend students wear masks at all times. And it says that students could be required to wear masks if the island's case counts rise and health officials advise administration to increase mitigation efforts.
Monday's decision was part of a longer discussion that began last week when the board met to hear public comment and discuss the district's plans for masking while the city was at the medium COVID-19 risk level.
Charity Kitsyuk was one of several people who showed up to the Unalaska High School library for the meetings. She teaches at Eagle's View Elementary Achigaalux̂ and is also a parent to kids in the district. She testified at last week's meeting saying that wearing masks in school has been difficult — especially as a resource teacher.
"We have small children who have developmental issues that need to see our facial expressions," Kitsyuk said. "They need to see their peers. All of our little kids need to see the faces of the people around them for developmental reasons — to socialize with others."
Along with a few other parents, Kitsyuk said she doesn't believe the kids are "at risk" of spreading the virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that schools can be a significant source of COVID transmission, especially when mitigation protocols like masking are lax.
"We're not at risk from our children, but they are at risk for learning [loss] — social, emotional," she said. "If they're required to wear the masks for any longer, I think it would be detrimental to the children."
Many other parents spoke in favor of eliminating mask requirements because the local case count remains low and vaccination is higher on the island than many other areas in the state.
But Dr. Megan Sarnecki, medical director at the Iliuliuk Family and Health Services clinic, said in last week's meeting that statewide case counts can still play a major role in the healthcare Unalaskans have access to.
"We had a patient last weekend [who] we tried to medevac in, and Providence Hospital was on 'divert' because they were too full," Sarnecki said. "We were able to get them into Alaska Regional, but that's one of the things that we do worry about out here — what's happening in Anchorage and the rest of the state affects us greatly."
The district's mitigation plan defines three transmission levels: low, medium and high. Those don't correspond directly to the City of Unalaska's risk levels, though. Instead, they reflect the number of current active cases of community spread as well as advice from the Unalaska EOC. Administrators will communicate with the EOC to decide when the district should change transmission levels and when students should be required to wear masks.
The district is currently at the medium transmission level and masks won't be required at school on Wednesday. However, students will be required to wear masks on school buses at all times.
If the school moves into the high transmission level — where widespread community transmission threatens the district's safety — masks will be mandated without extra consultation from health officials and the EOC. School may also be moved to hybrid or home-based learning, if the administration thinks it's the best option.
While the majority of public comment centered on mask-wearing, the board and administration were more focused on choosing clear language and criteria to define each transmission level in the mitigation plan.
Interim school board president Carlos Tayag said last week that he'd like to see the board recommend specific policies for when and how health protocols like social distancing or mask-wearing will be enforced.
"What we do need to have in place is that if a body of our students get sick, what are we going to do about that? And how are we going to prevent further spread in our classrooms?" Tayag said.
After hearing public comment at both meetings, school board members voted unanimously to include language that would allow for administrators to make flexible decisions based on the local situation.
Tayag said he'd like to see consistency between the district's transmission levels and the city's risk levels. However, he added that the flexibility in the final revision of the plan allows administration to make choices that are both appropriate for what is happening in the schools and relevant to what is happening on a city-wide level.
"[The plan] also takes into consideration local health authorities and their expertise and a partnership with the City of Unalaska's EOC so that things are very consistent throughout the city," he said.
Superintendent Dr. Robbie Swint Jr. said the district will remain "on guard" for any changes happening with local transmission levels and will respond to those appropriately.
Officials say the finalized mitigation plan will be available on the district's website soon.
Unalaska students will return to classrooms Wednesday. The Unalaska school board will also meet next week and will appoint a new member to the board.