The Anchorage School District will no longer require students and staff to wear face masks in school buildings when they return from winter break on Jan. 3.
Superintendent Deena Bishop said the district is dropping its mask requirement in response to a decline in COVID-19 cases.
“We do a lot of tests, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of tests a week, and our positivity rate is low,” Bishop said. “I think we probably test more than any single entity in this city, and our numbers look great.”
Also, she noted, the district’s decision comes after the Anchorage Assembly lifted its indoor mask mandate earlier this month.
The district is calling its optional masking policy “parent-informed masking.” Basically that means it’s up to families to decide whether to mask or not. And mask wearing is optional for teachers and staff too.
Bishop said it’s what the district had in place during summer school, and it resulted in about 40% of elementary and middle school students and staff choosing to wear masks. For high schoolers, it was about 1 in 3 wearing masks.
Bishop acknowledged that optional masking comes as the new omicron variant has begun to spread in the state. But she said the high rate of testing, the current low rate of transmission and the introduction of vaccines for kids ages 5 and up has her confident that the new policy won’t lead to a high spread of the virus in schools.
Thursday is the end of the first full semester students have spent back in their schools, instead of learning online. Bishop said there weren’t any widespread COVID-19 outbreaks or entire school closures.
“What we’ve done as a district has set us up for success,” Bishop said.
But Corey Aist, president of the Anchorage Education Association teachers union, said he believes the success of the school year so far is due to everyone wearing face masks. He said he’s skeptical about ending mandatory masking so soon.
“It feels a little premature, that we’re kind of ahead of ourselves here,” Aist said. “Not knowing what it’s going to look like in January.”
Aist said he thinks the district should wait and see what COVID-19 spread looks like after holiday travel before making changes to the masking policy.
While the district is making masks optional in school buildings on Jan. 3, Bishop said students still must wear face masks on buses in line with federal guidelines.
Going into the next semester, Bishop said the district is continuing to focus on helping struggling students get caught up. Between the stresses of the pandemic and the rough transition to online learning, a lot of students have fallen behind in their studies, she said. The district plans to use federal funds to address those issues.
“We have reserved and set aside money that is supposed to go towards impacting — they call it unfinished learning or kids that fell behind — in summer school programs, afterschool programs, what we can,” Bishop said.