During meetings of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education on Monday that, like others in recent months, were somewhat tumultuous, district Superintendent Clayton Holland reiterated the school district’s intention to keep face masks optional for students and staff during the 2021-2022 school year.
Amid jeers and cheers from audience members, a fleeting presence by the Soldotna Police Department and the sound of protests outside the borough building, the Board of Education heard testimony from community members about the district’s COVID-19 mitigation plan for the upcoming school year.
The board did not vote to approve or disapprove the plan, but rather held a work session prior to their Monday night meeting to discuss it. The plan does not need to be approved by the board because it was created by the superintendent and other district administration.
“We’re not going to put that decision-making on (the Board of Education) this year,” Holland said Monday.
Many elements of the plan presented Monday were outlined in a mitigation plan the district sent to the State of Alaska in June as part of its receipt of federal funding awarded under the American Rescue Plan Act.
Face masks will not be required for students or staff, but will be “strongly” recommended for those who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19. The only instances where students or staff may be required to wear masks in school, Holland said Monday, is if a local health authority, such as one of the borough’s incorporated communities or tribal entities, implemented a mask mandate for their residents. Students traveling to other boroughs for events will also be required to follow the protocols in that borough.
Masks will be required on school buses for students and riders, Holland said. The district did not require bus drivers to wear masks during the 2020-2021 school year over concerns about a driver’s glasses fogging up.
“(The CDC is) saying that they believe the Department of Transportation could pull our funding for transportation based off of not complying,” Holland said. “I know a lot of people have questioned the CDC’s ability to do that — everything we have right now is that they do have the ability.”
COVID-19 testing capacity will be expanded at all district schools following the district’s receipt of a $1.3 million grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the purpose of expanding testing capacity. All COVID-19 testing of students must be done with the consent of parents, KPBSD nurse Melisa Miller said Monday.
Antigen testing, which Miller said is mostly used for screening purposes, will be conducted regularly among students in sports and co-curricular activities, with the district citing voluntary participation in those activities. All positive antigen test results will be verified with a molecular test.
Physical distancing will continue to be observed in KPBSD buildings, as will other mitigation protocols implemented by the district last year, including the use of bipolar ionization systems in school buildings, the display of hygiene and masking etiquette signs, adherence to the district’s “Symptom-Free School Protocol” and contact tracing in combination with isolation and quarantine.
The district will also continue to encourage people to be vaccinated against COVID-19, including working with health entities to offer vaccine clinics in district facilities and sharing information about local vaccine clinics. Children 11 and under are currently not eligible to be vaccinated.
The district has said vaccination status among district students and staff will not be tracked, but will impact how some are asked to act after being identified as a close contact of someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.
Updates to mitigation protocols will be made by Holland, the district’s medical advisory team and others. Holland said members of the district’s medical advisory team for the upcoming school year must be willing to be publicly identified. During the 2020-2021 school year amid high tensions in the community, members asked to remain anonymous out of concern for their safety and their children or private medical practices.
Much ado about masking
Undoubtedly, the issue of biggest concern among people who testified during the board’s Monday night meeting was universal masking among students and staff.
Citing new information about the delta variant, the CDC recently updated its masking guidance to recommend universal in-door masking regardless of vaccination status in K-12 schools. Additionally, the CDC recommends children return to full-time, in-person learning in the fall with layered prevention strategies — such as social distancing, screening testing, ventilation, staying home when sick and contract tracing — in place.
One speaker pointed out that previous literature from the district describing COVID mitigation protocols for the upcoming school year said the district would follow CDC guidelines related to masking, including the district’s COVID-19 website, which says “face coverings for district staff will follow CDC guidance,” and a mitigation plan sent to the state by the district in June, which says “face coverings for staff and students will follow CDC guidance.”
Holland said during a Monday work session of the board, however, that guidance and requirements are not the same.
“They are making recommendations for us, not mandates,” Holland said of the American Academy of Pediatrics and CDC’s recommendations for masking in K-12 schools regardless of vaccination status.
Jennifer Hornung, a science teacher at Nikiski Middle High School, said she supports the mitigation plan as-is, with masking optional.
“Allowing parents to make the decisions they need to make to keep their family safe and healthy will help us all move past this pandemic and minimize collateral damage while we’re doing it,” Hornung said. “I applaud leaving masking up to the individual and to parents, while leveraging many other less invasive mitigation measures. When kids and adults have options, this very political issue stays out of my classroom.”
Sandra Elam said she supports the district’s current mitigation plan because it allows parents to have more of a say.
“I believe it is a good plan that encourages masks but does not mandate them,” Elam said. “It allows parents to play an important part in their child’s well-being by giving them the ability to decide if they want their child in a mask.”
Greta Mahowald, who said she has two elementary school children, works as a registered nurse and previously had COVID-19, was one of many in support of universal masking who cited recommendations from the CDC and from the American Academy of Pediatrics that K-12 students and staff mask while in school.
“Superintendent Holland has the credentials to lead the school district in matters of education (but) when it comes to decision-making about masking, which is about health and safety, I note that the superintendent is not an infectious disease specialist, epidemiologist, researcher, public health professional or physician,” Mahowald said. “I’m happy to hear the district will have a medical advisory group, but I’m concerned that if you have the CDC and the AAP and you will not listen to them, who will you listen to?”
Katie Archer Olson was one of several in support of universal masking who pointed out that children under the age of 12 are not yet eligible to be vaccinated.
“We know what the experts are telling us based on current research and science,” Olson said. “We need to do better to protect our staff, their family and our children, especially the unvaccinated.”
Several parents said they threatened to keep their kids out of school if the district required masks as part of their COVID-19 mitigation protocols.
“I will not send my 6-year-old to school being masked all day long,” said Kristen Dowling. “It’s not healthy, she can’t concentrate, they’re more apt to touch their face. COVID isn’t even scary for children.”
“I told (my daughter) that she probably wouldn’t be going back to school because I didn’t know how the board would vote,” Jim Davis said. “So I’m happy to tell her tonight that she’ll be able to go back to school.”
Among the board, members were similarly divided.
“I do not feel like we as board members have the expertise that is behind the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Department of Education, and we are being given some clear advice by those entities,” said board member Virginia Morgan. “I feel more comfortable doing that advice; I do feel an obligation to protect those who are most vulnerable in our public school system.”
Board member Matt Morse questioned the efficacy of COVID vaccines, which have been repeatedly found to prevent severe COVID illness.
“The first rule of a vaccine are, one, it has to stop the infection and it has to stop transmission — these vaccines don’t do either,” Morse said. “That’s the truth. If you want long-term immunity, buckle down and get COVID.”
The Pfizer & BioNTech vaccine, which is available to people 12 and older, requires two doses administered three weeks apart and is more than 90% effective in preventing COVID-19 infection. The Moderna vaccine, which is available to people 18 and older, requires two doses administered one month apart and is also more than 90% effective. Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen vaccine, which is available to people 18 and older and requires only one dose, is about 66.3% effective.
“You either get vaccinated or you get COVID,” said board President Zen Kelly. “That’s a really tough thing to say, especially when you’re under 12 years old and you can’t get vaccinated yet.”
A modicum of decorum
Monday’s passionate testimony prompted reminders from the board about decorum at meetings.
District staff called the Soldotna Police Department to remove a parent who was “interfering” with board proceedings during its 3 p.m. work session. The woman, Nicole Darwin, interrupted the work session and refused to leave after being asked to and repeatedly turned on her microphone after it was cut off by district administration.
Soldotna Police Department Lt. Duane Kant, who responded to Monday’s work session with Soldotna Police Officer Victor Dillon, confirmed Tuesday that KPBSD staff called SPD to respond to someone who was “interfering” with the meeting. By the time he and Officer Dillon responded, however, Darwin had already left the work session. Darwin later testified in opposition to universal masking at the board’s 6 p.m. meeting.
Kant said the department was also asked to return to the board’s regular meeting, which started at 6 p.m., for a walk-through, and that the department is not investigating the incident further.
The board saw similar outbursts during their regular meeting at 6 p.m., during which audience members shouted things like “Lies!” and “We back you, Clayton” while people were testifying.
“I’d like to ask the audience to please not interrupt our speakers,” Kelly said about 1.5 hours into the board’s 3.5-hour meeting. “Everybody has a right to their opinion and to give it to us and to say what they think without being interrupted.”
Kelly reiterated the need for respectful discourse in his closing remarks, when he said he would like to see the community move away from an “us-versus-them” mentality.
“I want us to unify around the common goal of educating our students, of creating critical thinkers and leading the state in innovation … We’re only going to do that if we can transcend all these divisive things that draw us apart,” Kelly said.
Monday’s meetings came amid surging COVID-19 case numbers in Alaska and in the Kenai Peninsula Borough. The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services reported 307 new COVID-19 cases in Alaska on Tuesday, including 46 on the Kenai Peninsula.
According to KPBSD’s COVID-19 risk levels dashboard, all three regions of the peninsula are considered to be at “high” risk level. Risk levels are used to help determine whether or not KPBSD schools in certain regions would operate remotely.
The southern peninsula, which is considered at high risk level when 19 or more cases have been reported in the last 14 days, has had 61 cases reported in that time period. Similarly, the eastern peninsula, which is considered to be at high risk level when eight cases have been reported over the last two weeks, has had 61 cases reported over the last two weeks. The central peninsula is considered to be at high risk level when 52 or more cases were reported over the last 14 days. As of Tuesday, 276 cases had been reported over the last 14 days on the central peninsula.
COVID-19 vaccines and tests continue to be available at multiple locations across the borough. A list of available vaccination appointments can be found on the state’s scheduling program at myhealth.alaska.gov. More information about COVID-19 in Alaska can be found on DHSS’ website at covid19.alaska.gov.
Board of Education meetings and work sessions can be viewed on the district’s media website at media.kpbsd.k12.ak.us.
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at email@example.com.