Dozens of parents spoke out against masks in Sitka’s public schools Wednesday (12-1-21) during a meeting of the Sitka School Board. The school district requires masks unless the community’s coronavirus alert level is ‘low’, But so far Sitka’s case count has been high enough to warrant masks all year.

Some parents questioned the efficacy and the safety of masks. Chelsea McLeod asked that the district let families decide whether their children donned masks in the classroom. 

“Can you guys please consider giving the rights of our children back to the parents? We are in charge of their health and well beings, and we really want you to be advocates for our children’s health?” McLeod asked.

Others challenged the schools rules, calling them unconstitutional.

“This isn’t about whether masks work or not. I believe we’ve gone past that,” said Ahna Hanson. “This is about government overreach, violating our God given rights, and forcing Americans to cover their face is unconstitutional. It’s unlawful and it’s wrong.” 

It’s unclear whether Hanson was invoking the Alaska or U.S. Constitution in her remarks. Or what part of either document would preclude the emergency public health mandates. But Sarah Lawrie took the floor to challenge the argument that mask rules are government overreach. 

“Each morning we eat food made from FDA approved ingredients and we take FDA approved medications,” she said. “While driving the state speed limit, we might turn on the radio to hear stations broadcasting according to FCC guidelines, and perhaps see motorcyclists wearing state required helmets. We then spend our day at a workplace governed by OSHA. Few people question these restrictions. A mask mandate is not an example of governmental overreach but is instead another policy intended to help keep us safe.”

The school’s COVID mitigation plan wasn’t on the meeting’s agenda. And as such, no action was taken by the school board. As of Tuesday there weren’t any COVID cases tied to any of Sitka’s schools, even though the community’s alert level remains high. But during his report to the board, Superintendent Frank Hauser said he hopes that compulsory masking will be a temporary measure.

“I’ve been saying from the start that masks aren’t forever, since the start of the school year,” he said. “On Monday, the Sitka school districts set a goal of transitioning to masks optional in mid-January. That’s about two months away, but only a few weeks for school with winter break and in service days factory factored in.” 

Hauser said that plans could change. But he says  upcoming changes to how the state determines community risk levels could allow the school district to ease its mask requirements early next year. 

“We’re looking ahead, after all our schools have had the opportunity to be vaccinated, and setting a goal for the future. I’m very optimistic we’ll meet this goal because of the alert level changes likely from the state…our generally declining cases and availability of vaccines for all who want them and our vaccine coverage,” he said. “Sitka is a much different place than many other communities right now. So I’m optimistic about the future and our ability to meet this goal. 

KCAW has reached out to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services to learn more about changes to the state’s case tracking and how it may impact Sitka’s alert level.