“Masking in schools is not something that necessarily will be here forever,” says Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer. “We are encouraging people to take a look at the CDC guidance because they do provide tools, particularly when we have a group of our population (children under 12 years of age) that does not have the opportunity to protect themselves with vaccines.” (Flickr photo/Petra Wasserman)

Sitka schools will reopen on August 23 with an optional masking policy, in the event that the community’s infection rate drops to fewer than 7 cases in 14 days.

The proposed policy may conflict with guidance from state and federal health experts who say that universal masking is the best way to keep kids in school.

Note: The Sitka School Board will hear the district’s 2021-22 COVID Plan during the Superintendent’s Report, item 10 b. on the August 18 agenda.

Alaska’s chief medical officer Dr. Anne Zink is a mother herself, and she knows that what students and families experienced in remote learning last year was far from ideal. She’s hopeful that we won’t see a repeat.

Zink spoke at a weekly press conference held by medical staff at the Department of Health and Social Services.

“We know that kids do better in school and with in person learning and why we are excited to have kids in school,” said Zink. “We also know that we have a highly contagious virus that continues to spread. And we have tools to be able to minimize that. And so we continue to work with schools and school districts to see what that looks like and what tools they may be able to use to keep their COVID cases low so that their kids can be in school, not needing to quarantine not needing to be out, it was great to see the CDC recommendations that fully masked children don’t need to quarantine. And so that’s a great way to kind of keep kids in school overall.”

The US Centers for Disease Control issued updated guidance for schools on August 4 that recommended universal masking for all students, teachers, staff, and visitors to schools, regardless of vaccination status.

The 2021 school year ended on a fairly positive note: Sitka’s infection rate was extremely low, graduation was held at all three high schools, and there was good reason to be optimistic about this coming school year.

Zink and other health professionals see a different climate this fall.

“We are still learning a lot about this virus, we continue to see surges, and particularly with the delta variant right now,” she said. “But we are also at a time where we can’t have all of our kids vaccinated, those less than 12 can’t be vaccinated. And so masking is in schools, not something that necessarily will be here forever. This is something that we are encouraging people to take a look at the CDC guidance because they do provide tools, particularly what we have a group of our population that does not have the opportunity to protect themselves with vaccines. Kids tend to do much better with this disease than adults. But as Joe just shared with the information earlier, we still see hospitalizations. We’ve been fortunate to state that we’ve not had a pediatric death. But we continue to watch this virus closely and do what we can to encourage communities, schools, individuals to take precaution measures to minimize the risk of this disease on our community and the kids.”

The Sitka School Board will meet on the evening of August 18 to consider its precautions. If the community remains on “high” or “moderate” alert, the precautions mirror the recommendations by the CDC. At “low” or “minimal” alert, however, masking becomes optional except on the district’s buses.

At the meeting of the Sitka Unified Command on August 12, public health nurse Denise Ewing reported that over 90 children under the age of 19 had tested positive for COVID-19 in Sitka in July — a number that had since increased to 107. But this doesn’t mean that large numbers of students will enter school with immunity. State epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin said the latest research indicated that having COVID conferred immunity against reinfection for only 90 days.

“So that is really compelling evidence to indicate that people who have had prior SARS could lead to infection prior COVID disease, they should get vaccinated if they want to decrease their risk of reinfection,” said McLaughlin.

Since children under 12 aren’t yet eligible for vaccination, Dr. Zink suggested that now was not the time to relax precautions. In fact, she wants us all to step up our game against the delta variant.

“We have a new and more challenging foe,” she said, “and it’s going to take every Alaskan waking up every day, and making a decision about what they’re going to do to keep themselves mentally and physically healthy and well and that community healthy well. And that includes being conscientious of this virus and taking steps that may be needed to help slow it spread overall. So I don’t think this doesn’t land on any one person. This takes, you know, patience, this takes providers, this takes the public, this takes the press, this takes policymakers, this takes all of us together. And I think that’s part of the reason why it’s an even more challenging phase of the pandemic.”

The Sitka School Board will meet at 6 p.m. Wednesday, August 18, in Harrigan Centennial Hall to review its COVID Guidance for the upcoming school year. You can find a link to the guidance here.