PALMER — The Mat-Su Borough School District discussed mitigation strategies for COVID-19 specifically related to local athletes at their board meeting on Wednesday. All of those who spoke during public comment discussed COVID-19 mitigation strategies and masks, which are required to be worn by high school athletes by the Alaska School Activities Association and required to be worn in classrooms by the MSBSD.
MSBSD Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Reese Everett said that MSBSD was in preliminary discussions with public health authorities and Capstone Family Medicine to provide weekly antigen testing for high school athletes free of charge. Athletes that have participated in weekly antigen testing would possibly be permitted to compete without wearing masks, but Everett said that ASAA would likely make that decision next week.
“We are pursuing a process by which we would partner possibly with Capstone medicine to have our student athletes participate in weekly antigen testing to be able to compete as well as to be able to travel and as a result of that, would be able to compete free of masks. I hesitate to throw out a timeline but I think we’re really optimistic. It’s absolutely a top priority that we could have this up and running as early as next week,” said Everett.
While the Anchorage School District postponed the hockey season to the spring, the MSBSD held their hockey season during the traditional winter months. However, MSBSD wrestlers will compete in the spring. Mat-Su Borough Assemblyman Rob Yundt II coaches wrestling and offered a number of mitigation strategies as suggestions during his comments, saying he wanted to help be part of the solution. Yundt began by thanking the board and administration for allowing schools to remain open to in-person instruction.
“We were frustrated as a community of wrestlers because we’ve seen some just some crazy things right. Right now for an example in our district, nationwide really you can go wrestle for six, seven minutes, body to body contact the whole time and then you can’t shake hands at the end. It’s the most beautiful part of our sport is we leave it all out there,” said Yundt. “We have at our school alone we have over 100 points of returning state placers that will not compete because they can go do USA wrestling events and they won’t come back on the mat, so we are cutting out a lot of children right now and that breaks my heart. I hate to see it so I do appreciate what you guys have done for us. Thank you for keeping the schools open. It means the world.”
Yundt said that wrestling tournaments have been ongoing for nearly 10 months in other parts of the country without masks, and noted that tournaments have directed one-way traffic onto the mats and provided fog machines to disinfect athletes after they finish competing.
“We all know how challenging this pandemic has been. We all want ot see our students on the mats and on the ice and on the basketball court and all of our activities as safely as possible,” said Everett. “One of the challenges we’ve had throughout the year because, partially because we’ve had in person learning available is often times the ripple effect of a covid case that may have been acquired as a result of participation in an activity or athletics then having an adverse impact on our ability to maintain in person learning because of contact tracing.”
Yundt was joined by fellow Assemblyman Mokie Tew in the audience, many who did not wear masks as required in school district buildings. Jenny Nash is a teacher in MSBSD and was incredibly passionate about athletes being required to wear masks during competition by ASAA.
“What you’re requiring our athletes to do is unhealthy and unsafe. I’m sorry, I don’t want to hear about the rise of covid cases attributed to athletes. These athletes are more at risk from the health consequences of wearing a mask while playing sports than from the risk of the virus. Potentially there could be health concerns later on down the road from forcing healthy children to wear masks. You are not protecting them, you are hurting them. Whatever team of covid experts you are working with and whatever covid data you are referring to to make this decision I feel is wrong on every level,” said Nash. “What is wrong with our district thinking this is okay? I don’t know how you can sleep at night and how you can live with yourselves knowing that our students are going through this.”
Those who spoke were not unanimously in favor of allowing athletes to compete without masks, and none mentioned the proposed antigen testing. Prior to opening public comment, Superintendent Dr. Randy Trani asked for an update from Everett to allow members of the public to be immediately informed on the issue. Local school nurse Michelle Hopkins pleaded with the school board and administration to maintain rigorous mitigation strategies in schools.
“Only 21.3 percent of Mat-Su residents are vaccinated as of today’s department of health report and the majority of students are not of age to receive the covid 19 vaccine. There are new variants and the numbers of covid cases are going up again. Decreasing mitigation strategies that have served us well would be a mistake,” said Hopkins. “Please do not remove the very things that have allowed us to open schools safely.”
Trani presented similar graphs to those he has used to demonstrate the COVID-19 case rate in schools and the Mat-Su Borough for months. First, Trani showed a bar graph depicting the case rate per 100,000 residents for each of the ‘big five’ school districts. The Mat-Su’s case rate of 50.5 is the highest in the state and more than twice the rate of Anchorage. Fairbanks ranks second highest at 32.58 cases per 100,000 residents. Trani followed the graph of case rates with a graph of vaccination percentages, noting that his data may have been different from that Hopkins had discussed as he pulled numbers for the vaccination rate among all ages.
“Fewer folks are getting vaccinated and more folks are getting sick and that’s a bad combination. I’ve said in I don’t know, three or four different meetings, our goal is to try to return to normal as quickly as possible and two of the things that are going to impact that are our vaccination rate and our case rate so hopefully we can turn this around and reduce the number of cases and increase the number of vaccinations,” said Trani.
The Mat-Su’s rate of 15.68 percent of residents of all ages that have received the vaccine is the lowest among the five districts with Juneau coming in at 32.63 percent. The statewide rate is 27.7 percent. Trani stressed that with the Extended School Year summer coursework rapidly approaching in just seven weeks, educating students in an unmasked environment will be a test of other mitigation strategies.
“Our goal, so like aspirational goal is we want to have a mask optional environment but what mitigations would we have to do to make that happen. We have a team of folks here at the district office who are working on that and trying to plan for a mask optional start for our summer program. That will be a test. Can we put in other mitigation strategies that will allow us to be mask optional,” said Trani.
Trani reiterated that increased vaccination rates would be the main tool to continue to keep schools open and eventually to provide a safely unmasked classroom environment. Trani also announced that coming next fall, district staff who must take time away from work due to COVID-19 infection or close contact will be required to use their own leave days. Currently, any MSBSD staff member who must quarantine is not required to use their own leave. Those who have not been vaccinated and must quarantine will be required to use their own leave unless they are medically fragile and unable to take the vaccine. Following Trani’s report, School Board President Ole Larson questioned if Valley residents who have received their shots outside the Valley are being counted in the state’s data.
“The valley is a very independent lot,” said Larson. “I know a lot of people that are going to just refuse vaccinatins versus some of the other areas in the state, but my concern was those that are getting vaccinated in other portions of the state.”
The Mat-Su Borough has had 71 new cases reported as of Wednesday and remains in the ‘high’ alert level. The MSBSD reported 11 new cases with the 14-day case count at 143.