PALMER — The Mat-Su Borough School District School Board chambers were packed with over 50 members of the community who came to hear about the district’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic as it continues to infect students and staff across the Valley. Prior to two lengthy public comment sections and an in-depth presentation from Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink and other Department of Health and Social Services staff, MSBSD Superintendent Dr. Randy Trani began the meeting by thanking staff, students and parents for doing their part to keep schools open during last school year. Protests were held at three separate schools this week, both in favor of and in opposition to masks in schools. Parents and children alike held signs during the meeting, displaying messages on both sides of the issue of masks.
“I think that we can do something amazing right now and there’s lots of different perspectives in the room tonight and so here’s what I’m going to try to embrace moving forward, I want us to give COVID the attention it needs and I don’t want it to be the only thing that we talk about,” said Trani.
Trani said that MSBSD enrollment was up by 4,000 students who are attending in-person instruction this year, with only 13 % of students receiving their instruction through correspondence courses. Butte Elementary and Glacier View School remain the only schools closed due to COVID, and will remain closed to students until September 6. There are 10 schools, just over one fifth of the entire district, at a medium risk level that may require students and staff to wear masks, and 74.5 % of schools within MSBSD do not require masks as their alert level is low.
“I think that we are at a critical point in this pandemic,” said Zink. “I didn’t speak to you at all last year. This is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to speak with the board, but this honestly for me is the worst point in the pandemic is where we’re at right now. I never wanted to see our hospitals where they are right now and it’s not a good place and we really need every Alaskan to help us pull forward to protect each other. We have one hospital in the Valley, we have one school district, we are friends, we’re families, we’re all in this together and we’ve unfortunately already had tremendous loss but I think that’s going to get a lot worse if we don’t all do our part to slow it down.”
Zink listed the five criteria that DHSS uses to examine school mitigation strategies as community transmission, vaccine coverage, testing used, outbreaks happening, and the number of children being served. Zink then went through each of the layered strategies for preventing the spread of the coronavirus and delta variant with the most important layer being vaccines, followed by masking and testing. Zink noted that Alaska reached new records for number of cases in one day and also broke a previous record with 161 people hospitalized due to COVID. Contrary to data produced during the spread of the initial virus, Zink noted how infections in children younger than age 18 had begun rapidly increasing.
“We have a new variant and the delta variant of this disease is spreading much more quickly as you’ve heard before, as well as impacting children. To see this level of hospitalization amongst children across our country is a stark reminder of the fact that this pandemic is not done and that this does affect children even though it does not affect them as severely as it does adults,” said Zink. “Really this childhood hospitalization is something that is stretching the capacity worldwide.”
Zink continued to move down the list of metrics for measuring community spread, none of which seemed to show the Mat-Su in a positive light. Since COVID vaccines were approved for children ages 12 and older, 26.4 % of Mat-Su residents in that age group have been vaccinated.
“Mat su unfortunately is one of the lowest vaccinated areas in the state and we continue to be concerned about this just because of the number of people who are potentially going to be exposed to this virus without having the protection of the vaccine,” said Zink. “With as much COVID transmission that’s happening right now in the Valley and across the state really, whenever we’re in an indoor place with others we should be masking as an additional tool to slow it down.”
Despite Federal guidance regarding mandated mask usage on public transportation, the MSBSD opened the school year with no universal masking requirement on buses. Bus routes carrying students to schools in the medium risk are required to wear masks. The district has also experienced a driver shortage that is affecting school districts all across the country and has forced rolling transportation cancelations. Trani said that he was hopeful drivers would return from quarantine next week and routes would be fully staffed again, but did not make any promises.
“The CDC has diff authorities including the ability to recommend and they also have the ability to send orders and those are enforceable orders from the Federal government. The CDC mask, order which was an order not a recommendation, applies to all public transportation and conveyances including school buses, regardless of the mask policy at the school and this includes both private and public schools passengers and drivers must wear a mask,” said Zink.
During previous meetings, School Board member Ryan Ponder has questioned the enforcement capability and consequences of allowing children to attend school that had been identified as close contacts or received exposure notices from their school.
“The quarantine and isolation authorities as well as the public health authorities are separate from the disaster declaration which is no longer in effect and are current public health authorities that have been in existence for many years here in the state of Alaska,” said Zink. “Here’s that authority that I mentioned with DHSS as per isolation and quarantine and why we do have legal obligation to make sure that public is informed and we do what we can to mitigate public health risk.”
Following Zink’s presentation, Career Tech High School sophomore and Student Representative to the School Board Ben Kolendo questioned Zink on her personal opinion on the district’s mitigation policies.
“I think the single biggest tool that we have right now to slow the spread of COVID-19 is to take addtl precautions when we are in close settings with others. Right now at schools, there’s a lot of kids in a lot of spaces and that’s a lot of opportunity for COVID to spread very quickly,” said Zink.
Board Member Dwight Probasco clarified with Zink that the most effective mitigation strategies other than vaccinations would be universal masking and surveillance testing. Board Member Jeff Taylor expressed his concern over the mental health of students, and Board President Ole Larson asked Zink about what she felt would be the endgame for the necessary mitigation measures for the virus.
“Having vaccinations not coming to work while sick and being masked are all important tools in helping to slow the spread, particularly for our children who are youngest and deserve in person education without the fear of getting the virus,” said Zink. “When you are able to layer on additional tools such as regular surveillance testing and universal masking, you are able to significantly decrease the number of cases of COVID-19 within the schools.”
Following Zink’s presentation, Trani further discussed how COVID is affecting schools during his superintendent’s report. Trani noted that absence rates are higher than ever, above 30 % in the schools with the highest absence rate. Trani stressed that excessive student absences from school required reteaching of curriculum and made it tougher for teachers to move classrooms forward. During the 2020-2021 school year, 1,479 cases were reported among MSBSD students and staff, and 462 have already been reported in 10 days of school this semester. Butte Elementary school became the first school to close this year as cases skyrocketed from one day to the next.
“It looked like its doubling time was about every two days. If we’d have left it open for another week we would’ve probably had everybody in the whole school who could possibly have been infected, infected,” said Trani. “So I felt like working through the [Health Action Team], like our trigger finger was not sensitive enough on putting the masks in.”