Point of View: Get vaccinated and mask up for student safety

Follow expert advice on how to return to in-school teaching safely and responsibly.

My back hurts from sleeping on the living room floor Saturday night. Why was I sleeping on the floor when my comfy bed was just 30 feet away? I was on the floor as a consolation prize. The original prize was supposed to be my son’s first sleepover in 18 months. He had special snacks and activities all planned out and was looking forward to it more than he looks forward to his birthday.

Then we heard the news of COVID-19 cases on the Southern Kenai Peninsula: 22 new cases on Friday; 18 more over the weekend; another 14 on Monday. The entire Kenai Peninsula was back in the red and at high level of risk for COVID-19 community transmission. My stomach sank. I informed him of the numbers. We canceled the sleepover because it no longer felt safe. His heart broke. I did my best to make the evening special, but staying up late with movies and snacks with Mom isn’t the same as with a friend. So now my back aches and my heart aches and our local numbers continue an upward trajectory.

This sudden spike is especially concerning since the first day of school is scheduled for Aug. 17 and my son, along with all children under 12, is still ineligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. As a parent, my children’s safety is number one. Staying safe and healthy is why we decided to homeschool last year. With a new and unknown disease spreading across the globe, safe at home is what felt right for our family. It may be the path we choose again this year, depending on what mitigation plans are put in place for in-person schooling to keep our unvaccinated children safe. I realize we are in a unique and privileged position to have a choice and making a choice isn’t available to all families. That is why we as a community need to ensure that in-person schooling is a safe and healthy option for all the children of our community.

At this point we haven’t decided what we will do this year, and when faced with tough questions, I look to the experts, those who have dedicated their lives and professions to understanding complicated scenarios. In this case, I look to the AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics). The mission of the American Academy of Pediatrics is to attain optimal physical, mental, and social health and well-being for all infants, children, adolescents and young adults. They are the experts when it comes to the health and safety of children. The “Back-to-sleep” campaign — an AAP recommendation. No screen time for children under 2 — another AAP position.

Last week, the AAP released the “COVID-19 Guidance for Safe Schools.” The premise of the report is that “all policy considerations for school COVID-19 plans should start with the goal of keeping students safe and physically present in school.” Being safe and physically present in school is the best way to ensure our children are supported physically, mentally, and socially. The top two interventions they state to achieve the above and mitigate risk are: 1) all eligible individuals should receive the COVID-19 vaccine and 2) all students older than 2 years and all school staff should wear face masks at school (unless medical or developmental conditions prohibit use).

We as a community need to heed the advice of the experts and their current recommendations so our children can return to school safely. The KPBSD School Board is meeting on Aug. 2 where they will most likely make decisions regarding how schools will protect students against COVID-19. If they follow the science and the recommendations of the experts, our children will be masked and will be able to be physically present in school in the safest way possible.

Hannah Gustafson is mother to Ella and Gunnar, a concerned community member and a private contractor who has called Homer home since 2012.