PALMER — The Mat-Su Borough School District School board made no changes to their district-wide COVID-19 mitigation strategies on Wednesday, but did hear criticism from over a dozen parents of district students. The School Board meeting had two sections for public comment, both which provided emotional testimony that ranged from tears to shouting. Multiple families had multiple members of their family speak to the school board. Trinity Hopkins followed her mother Michelle, who is a school nurse at Knik Elementary.
“The nurses are under extreme pressure to keep schools open with lacking tools and participation. On the office of school board page under goals, the fifth goal states promote safe and healthy environments for all. Right now that is not being accomplished. As we know COVID-19 spreads through droplets in the air and the current mitigation is that masks are recommended, not required,” said Trinity Hopkins. “These mitigation strategies have been proven to decrease the spread of COVID-19. If we value education, then we should also value the medical advice from our educated medical professionals. Under beliefs on the office of the school board page, the first point you read is we believe that the needs and best interest of the students drive all decisions. Actions speak louder than words and not only does the school board contradict their own statements, their actions are less than adequate.”
The school board meeting was the most well attended meeting of the early school year, and likely the most attended meeting all year. There were over 60 members of the public in attendance at the start of the meeting, many of whom carried bright signs.
“Although I understand that we live in uncertain times and I fear that our freedom of choice has been taken away, I am not asking for the fearful to take off their masks. I am simply asking for us to have the right to choose whether we do or not. You may wonder why some of us choose not to wear a mask. It may seem like it’s such a minor request, but do not misunderstand we are not uninformed or uneducated. We are parents who want the best for our children,” said Nagegda Poluschkin. “This is not to minimize how others feel or ask for others to take off their mask, I am simply asking that our choice is there. I worry that if our freedom to choose is taken away, we will be showing children that it is us against them and pitting them against each other. It seems to me that there is no negative effects of children not wearing masks within the school so please don’t take away our freedom to choose.”
A pair of protests were held at Career Tech High School on Wednesday featuring students who were in favor of masks in schools and a separate group of students and parents who were against district mitigation strategies. More protests were held at MSBSD schools on Wednesday.
“I come here today to implore you to help protect my son with every tool that we know that we have. What do I tell my kid when he asks why do we wear a mask? I tell him because we wear it because we’re superheroes and what do superheroes do, they protect people,” said Shannon Criss. “My mitigation requests have not taken away your freedoms, they are teaching our children what it means to be part of a community. It is better to say that we did too much than to have to say that we didn’t do enough.”
Only School Board members Dwight Probasco and Sarah Welton wore masks at the dias during the duration of the meeting. As of Wednesday night, Butte Elementary and Glacier View School remain the only two school buildings to close to in-person instruction within MSBSD, while 10 other schools have entered the medium risk category and may require students and staff to wear masks.
“The school district does not have the legal authority to require students or faculty to wear a facemask, temperature checks, social distancing or proof of vaccination. Mandates are not laws. Moreover, there are laws, Federal laws and state laws that prevent the school district from discriminating against our children,” said Emily Lee. “Further as a place of public accommodation, you have extended an irrevocable license to the public to enter your establishment and you may not deny entry based on race, religion, disability, or other protected characteristics. Thus by denying entry or requiring virtual leaning to a student who is not wearing a facemask for either medical or religious reasons, you are in violation of at least five federal laws and 15 Alaska state laws.”
The first five public commenters spoke in favor of masks to the school board. There were 18 members of the public to offer testimony in total, 11 of whom were in favor of masks and seven of whom were in opposition to the district’s current mitigation strategies. Janice Raisanen spoke, following testimony from her two daughters.
“We all have risks, we can’t live forever. There’s going to be more viruses. We can’t prevent them, so I think that masks are ineffective especially when you see the middle school or the high school students,” said Raisanen. “They;re not going to use their masks correctly. We heard one student talk about poking holes and I know that my children also probably try to get away with not wearing a mask the most they can, so I think that we should look at mitigation measures but maybe something that doesn’t require somebody to cover up their face and might not be as effective as others.”
MSBSD Superintendent Dr. Randy Trani even pointed out the stark opposition of the emails he and school board members had received. Trani presented quotes from emails stating that parents would remove their students from school if there were masks and another saying the same for if there were no masks. One parent compared masking students to child abuse, and another compared not requiring masks to child abuse. Trani presented emails asking the board to “follow the science” as justification for both wanting masks and not wanting masks. Pediatrician Dr. Therese Tomasoski was one of several medical professionals to speak to the board.
“As a school board and school district, your job is to provide a safe learning environment. We all have a common goal of keeping our kids in school,” said Tomasoski. “The best way to do this at this moment is to wear masks and continue our current mitigation efforts.”
There were 45 new cases announced within MSBSD students and staff on Wednesday and there have been 241 in the last seven days.