School board OKs optional masking to start Wednesday

The school board voted unanimously Monday to make face masks optional for students, staff and visitors in school buildings beginning Wednesday.

The board adopted changes to the district’s COVID-19 mitigation plan, including removing quarantine requirements for close contacts of infected individuals and for students and staff returning to town after traveling.

After hearing from students and members of the public, the board voted unanimously to approve the changes. The face mask requirement has been in effect since the start of the school year, after carrying over from the past school year.

Under the revisions, masks will be optional as long as one of four circumstances continues to apply to the community: “The district and schools adopt a random testing program at school sites to access possible outbreaks at school; the CDC rates Wrangell in ‘low’ or ‘moderate’ with significant evidence of a return to ‘low’; the vaccination rate (with booster if beyond five months) at the school and community is in the top 35% of the state or 70% (with steady increases); recognition that other mitigation measures could be put in place to limit spread during optional masking even when counts are low.”

Schools Superintendent Bill Burr said certain language is being retained in the mitigation plan in case COVID counts spike again and the district needs to act quickly to prevent further spread of illness. As such, the plan says masking and other protocols will be reviewed monthly by the school board.

“Part of this is so we can readjust if there is something where we would have to go back to them, they’re already in the plan and it would allow for fast movement in times of necessity,” Burr said.

He said testing at school sites would be random and only for a short while to gather data and to determine if masking and other masking protocols would need to be reinstated.

A question was raised regarding the accuracy of active case numbers, since not all are reported. Burr said that is another reason for the testing. It was also a matter of trusting parents.

“We’re counting on the integrity of the parents to report it (if their children test positive),” said Board President David Wilson. “Overall, I trust the parents to be positive and to let us know what’s happening.”

During the public comment period, Penny Allen, a parent and senior class adviser, said she and others in the community had gathered 497 adult signatures calling on the district to drop the masking requirement.

“With only four days to collect these signatures between work and family, those numbers are very good for our small population,” Allen said. “Given more time, we’re completely confident we would get a great deal more. We’ve had overwhelming support from the community.”

Burr said the changes to the mitigation plan are being made due to the declining case counts in Wrangell. The borough reported 17 COVID cases in February and just two since Feb. 11, after a record surge in January.

Quarantine language has been removed from the mitigation plan since the district is adopting “test to stay,” which says that if students have had close contact with an infected individual or have recently traveled, they will not need to quarantine if they test negative within five days. Students who opt out of test-to-stay will be required to quarantine for five days.


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