Parents were divided about whether or not the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District should require masks as part of its COVID-19 mitigation plan during testimony given at Monday’s board of education meeting. Changes to the plan were presented in a work session prior to the board’s regular meeting, which was held in the Homer High School auditorium.
As of Tuesday, 16 of the district’s 42 schools were operating with universal masking in place. That’s in addition to two schools that were operating 100% remotely. In schools where universal masking is in place, fewer students are required to quarantine after being identified as close contacts.
Some parents who testified Monday said they will keep their kids home if masks are required, while others say they’ll keep their kids home if masks aren’t required.
Brie Drummond, who said she has two children in Homer schools, said Monday that she is “frustrated” with the lack of universal masking policies in schools and that she worries about her kids getting sick when she sends them to school in the morning. Drummond said she already missed a week of work this month after her son’s kindergarten class was sent home due to a positive case.
“My husband and I have been discussing which one of us will quit our jobs if this continues,” Drummond said. “It puts an incredible stress and strain on our families, and I know we’re not alone in this in our community.”
Misty Anderson, a parent from Seward, spoke in opposition of masks, which she referred to as “face diapers,” and said students are being sent home “unnecessarily” because of the district’s Symptom-Free School protocol.
“We were told before the school year started that face masks would be optional,” Anderson said. “If it makes someone feel safer wearing one, then do so, but this should not be pushed on all kids.”
The debate came after an afternoon work session in which district administrators shared revisions to the COVID-19 mitigation plan for the 2020-2021 school year. Among other things, the revisions outline criteria used to determine when a school moves in and out of universal indoor masking for staff and students.
A “conversation” between district administrators and school site administrators is triggered when a school district meets four out of five criteria outlined in the plan. Factors considered include a school community positivity rate of 3% or higher, a student absenteeism rate of 25% or higher, local and regional hospital and ICU capacity, a community’s COVID-19 case count per 100,000 people and the impact of a schools staff absenteeism rate.
Plan revisions also clarified that masks are required during non-strenuous, indoor physical education classes, but are not required in strenuous outdoor activities or during recess. Additionally, weekly antigen testing for student athletes was discontinued on Aug. 18 in response to supply shortages.
Also identified as a concern during Monday’s meeting was how close contact and quarantine protocols are being executed. Those protocols largely come down to whether or not the contact is vaccinated and whether they are symptomatic. Vaccinated, asymptomatic close contacts, for example, do not need to quarantine. They must get tested within three to five days of exposure, must wear a mask for 14 days and should carefully monitor for symptoms over the next two weeks.
People could be seen protesting the district’s mitigation plan outside of the George A. Navarre Borough Admin building on Tuesday, where the KPBSD administrative offices are. Signs called out differences in quarantine protocols for vaccinated versus unvaccinated students. Rhonda White, who was holding a sign that read, “Equal treatment for vaccinated and unvaccinated,” said she was motivated to protest the policies when her children were sent home after being identified as close contacts of someone who tested positive for COVID-19, even though her kids were asymptomatic.
“I kind of just feel like they’re trying to push their vaccination agenda on our kids and it’s unfair, if they’re missing out on more school, their sporting events and they’re not sick,” White said.
Since Aug. 23, when KPBSD began formally tracking COVID-19 cases among school populations, 44 staff and 291 students have tested positive for COVID-19. That’s in addition to 136 staff and 1,611 students who have been identified as close contacts since Aug. 23.