School mask policies frustrate some community members

To mask or not to mask? The question continues to cause headaches within the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, where the debate has raged almost as long as the COVID-19 pandemic that ignited it.

Universal masking of students is a contentious issue among the KPBSD community, with those in favor saying it is a measure necessary to slow the spread of COVID-19 and those in opposition saying it hinders the ability of students to learn.

The district has emphasized a commitment to keeping students in school throughout the current academic year and has required universal masking on a school-by-school basis.

KPBSD Superintendent Clayton Holland said Monday the district’s ability to be flexible when it comes to COVID mitigation is key, and that he is looking to announce changes to the district’s plan closer to spring break. The district most recently announced that it would no longer conduct contact tracing in schools where universal masking is in place, citing the burden put on staff and similar moves nationwide.

“I realize that people are not getting as sick, but there are still people very concerned about this,” Holland said. “So we’re going to ride this out the next few weeks, make sure these numbers do go down, and at that time look at making a change.”

Teea Winger, who said she has children attending Mountain View Elementary School and Kenai Middle School, spoke in opposition to mask mandates during Monday’s meeting. She said discrepancies in masking requirements for the school community and other groups that use school facilities, such as the Boys and Girls Club of the Kenai Peninsula, send “mixed messages” to parents and that requiring masks for visitors is “alienating” parent volunteers.

“Nobody wants to walk into a school and have a principal down their back about wearing a mask,” Winger said.

Winger, who also serves on the Kenai City Council, went on to suggest that it is hypocritical of the district say they will give deference to tribal groups and municipalities that require masks in their communities, but will not do the same in Kenai, where the city council passed a resolution stating its opposition to government COVID mandates.

“Had we … passed a mandate that stated that you would have to wear masks in our city, the school board would have probably jumped on that and mandated masks in their Kenai schools,” Winger said. “However, we came out strongly against it and yet we’re still seeing masking in our Kenai schools.”

Testimony in support of masking among students came from Soldotna High School Junior Amara Lewis, who said wearing a mask at school makes her feel safe and does not negatively affect her ability to learn.

“Staying in school is helpful for the well-being of the whole person and masks help us stay in school,” Lewis said. “I understand that people don’t like wearing masks, but I feel as though we should work together to help lessen the spread.”

Board members are similarly split on the issue, with some saying they’re ready to see masking go away and others saying it is a necessary safety measure.

“It’s a greater risk that (students) don’t have a good education and they don’t have good physical education opportunities,” said board member Jason Tauriainen, who represents Nikiski. “So the faster we get this mitigation thing out of our schools, the better off we’ll be.”

Board member Patti Truesdell said masks are not as much of a nuisance to her grandkids, who attend school in Anchorage and sometimes call her out when she complains about wearing a mask.

“Every time I complain about it, my grandkids say, ‘What’s the big deal? We wear a mask every single day in Anchorage,’” Truesdell said.

As of Tuesday, 12 KPBSD schools — representing about 2,800 district students and staff — were operating with universal masking in place.

In determining whether a school moves in or out of universal indoor masking, KPBSD uses criteria outlined in the district’s COVID-19 mitigation plan.

Meetings of the board of education are made available on the district’s media website at

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at