Approximately 40 Kodiak residents showed up at Monday’s regular Kodiak Island Borough School District Board of Education meeting in continued protest of the school district’s mask mandate.
About a dozen were afforded seats in the boardroom, and the rest sat or stood in the hallways outside the meeting room. The district, anticipating a high turnout, had set up TVs in the hall displaying the meeting and routed audio for everyone to hear.
Nearly 20 people of those who attended spoke during both citizens’ comments periods, most advocating that the school board and district drop its mask mandate. They also voiced concern about community vaccination clinics being hosted at the Gerald C. Wilson Auditorium, and they questioned the district administration’s ability to implement mandates.
While the Emergency Services Council dropped its indoor mask mandate last week, the district continues to maintain its own universal mandate for students and staff. According to Superintendent Larry LeDoux, the mandate remains in place based on recommendations from federal, state and local health professionals.
A few residents spoke forcefully and passionately, stating that they would unenroll their children if they were not allowed to attend class without masks. Others spoke about the mental health impacts.
A handful of students spoke out about how masks impacted their studies or activities at school.
Resident Judi Kidder said the district administration’s mask mandate was inconsistent with the board’s ability to implement policy not in conflict with state or federal law. She added that while she and some other speakers didn’t have children in school, she was a taxpayer whose property tax helps fund the district.
“The mask mandate is not a law, regulation or policy set by this board,” Kidder said. “The board delegates to the superintendent to carry out board decisions. … And the board retains responsibility for any performance or powers delegated.”
Kidder said the state has nothing set in policy or law mandating mask mandates, only as a recommendation. She added that comments made by a few board members critical of non-masked protestors at a previous meeting were inappropriate.
“You represent the community as a whole, and whether you have a personal bias or not you must set those aside to make your decisions and hear from every part of the community,” Kidder said.
Rebecca Campos said her two children attend district schools and don’t like wearing the masks.
“It is hot and uncomfortable and you’re breathing in everything,” Campos said. “I don’t think it’s fair that you get to tell my children that they have to wear masks when they don’t have to do it outside the schools.”
Parent Josh Fentress said his children attend local schools and that masks have had a negative impact on students’ mental health.
“Children are now the only ones in town now compelled to wear masks, despite ample evidence that it affects their mental and physical health,” Fentress said. “The world is learning to live with COVID and so must we. So it’s time to leave it to a parent’s discretion to decide whether children should wear masks to school.”
Elementary school student Dakota Fish said students had to wear masks during gym.
“When we’re exhausted, it’s so hard to breathe in those masks because some of them are really thick and we can’t get enough air,” Fish said. “During lunch time there are these plastic boards blocking us (from one another).”
Some of the schools utilize plexiglass shields in lunch rooms to serve as additional layers of protection against spreading COVID. According to a November report to the school board from Main Elementary, the shields “provide a visual reminder that the target for lunch is to first eat, then quietly talk,” and that “after eating students engage in healthy socialization while maintaining safe distances and appropriate masking.”
Main Elementary also reported most third and fourth graders still eat lunch in the classroom.
“We do not like that because it is suffocating us and hurting us,” Fish said. “We can only take our masks off while eating or at recess.”
Parent Josh Olson said the masks were only effective in “pissing our kids off.”
“I have a 6-year-old, and anybody who has a kid in second grade or below knows that your kid has never truly experienced what school is really about,” Olson said. “Until we quit this (mask mandate), they never will. My 6-year-old hates it and my 16-year-old, like others, quit wrestling this year because he got tired of wearing a mask while trying to run and sprint and wrestle.”
Aubrin Fentress, a third grader, said he could “barely even breathe” after wearing a mask all day.
“At my lunch, I had to take my mask off, take a bite and put it right back on,” he said. “When I was outside, I had to wear a mask and wasn’t allowed to touch anybody and almost wasn’t allowed to talk to each other. We had dividers everywhere, and you had to be six feet apart. That was horrible.”
Lisa Frick said she had three students homeschooling because of the district’s COVID policies. She said her daughter played in an off-island middle school basketball tournament in Houston over the weekend and called the experience a disgrace.
“You would think with no season last year you would have plenty of extra money to get them there on time and have a hotel to stay in,” Frick said. She said instead the flight was delayed and luggage left in Kodiak. The team was the only one wearing masks all the time and were prevented from dining out.
Parent Aaron Griffin talked about the new mental health “pandemic” among teenagers across the nation.
“I’ve seen the amount of blood, sweat and tears staff have put into keeping the school district moving and kids in the classroom,” Griffin said. “The teachers are doing the best they can under direction.”
At the same time, “I think we need to look at the bigger picture, and it’s not just what we’re doing to respond to COVID and requirements,” Griffin said. “I think attempting to return to normalcy will help, especially when you look at teenagers who are social.”
Kodiak High School senior and athlete Naomi Griffin asked for a return of high school experiences such as homecoming and prom.
“For the past two years I’ve first-hand experienced restrictions imposed on us, from not having a locker to not having a hot lunch,” Griffin said. “I’m of the lucky portion of students who don’t rely on school for consistent meals and have a car to store my books and work.”
She said as a student council member she knows of students who suffer from depression and anxiety.
“We find ourselves in a constant state of change and unable to find stability in the present or future,” Griffin said. “I know I have not seen my teachers’ faces because they have been behind masks. That type of emotional distance has been hard.”
Some members spoke in favor of the procedures the district has implemented.
Michelle Leisure, a parent and Kodiak Middle School teacher calling into the meeting, thanked the school board and district for “looking at the picture when it comes to what our community needs” and ensuring kids remain in school.
Leisure added that regardless of whether students wear masks, teachers have a sometimes difficult job to ensure students remain engaged and enjoy learning.
“The fact is they can’t be there without masks every single day and knowing what teachers know and seeing the students being able to be there is absolutely amazing,” Leisure said. “I was a virtual teacher last year because we had the opportunity to have our students at home, and there is such a difference in teaching a student through a computer versus being in a room with them.”
Leisure said kids who remain out of school are more exposed to COVID and masks “have minimized the number of kids who have had to be out of the school building.”
Kodiak High School freshman Nora Saltonstall, the school board’s student advisory representative, in a written statement said she wasn’t bothered by wearing a mask in school.
“It is just another aspect of my school day life now and if it keeps one another safe I’m willing to wear a mask,” Saltonstall said. “Students are adaptive, we learn to smile with our eyes, and while I don’t speak for all my fellow students I feel there are still smiles and joy even through the mask.”
ADAPTING TO CHANGES
LeDoux, the superintendent, said some changes are coming for mask mandates, at least as far as sports are concerned.
“We went through our local medical advisory committee and students who play basketball, wrestling and hockey will (only) have to wear masks while playing,” LeDoux said. “They would have to wear one while on the bench, but not while they are actively playing.”
LeDoux called it a step forward.
He said at the moment community spread of COVID has been falling. The recent decrease has caused the Kodiak Emergency Services Council to drop its indoor mask mandate and the Emergency Operations Center reduce its frequency of reporting new cases from daily to weekly.
“The number of cases are not as high as they used to be and we’re looking very closely at that,” LeDoux said. “However, while it’s been going down in the community, we’ve had 15 cases in our system over the last week, which is very high so we are very careful about that.”
LeDoux said things could change as the district monitors data and works with its medical advisors.
“If things go as they are, once we get through the holidays, masks may be completely voluntary,” LeDoux said. “I just can’t tell you that right now because I don’t know where this pandemic may be going.”
Board members remained supportive of the district’s current policies.
“As a board member, I can say these decisions are not easily made,” said board President Julie Hill, who was video conferencing in. “I was at the last medical advisory committee and we spent a great deal of time trying to look at what all the options are.”
Hill said she “wakes up at night thinking about everyone’s perspectives about masks or no masks.”
“We are trying to keep kids safe in school, and we have seen the ramifications of when children are not in school and being homeschooled around parents’ employment,” Hill said. “We are listening to everyone’s comments and spending a great deal of time trying to reach conclusions for this dilemma.”
Board member Dave Johnson said the board takes its decisions seriously.
“No one wants to see anyone wear masks, but we agreed to these mitigations in light of a huge uptick we saw in COVID at the start of the school year,” Johnson said. “I hope that as numbers go down and parents who elect to have children vaccinated that we revisit the (masking) decision as soon as we can safely do so.”
Johnson added the federal relief funding the district has received has played no part or requirement in a district’s COVID policies.
“That is hard to hear that we take money for masks, and that is untrue,” Johnson said.