Parents and students in Ketchikan voiced their frustration with school mask requirements at a school board meeting Wednesday. The board held off on making any immediate changes ahead of a scheduled review of COVID-19 policies next month.
About 10 people came to the podium at Ketchikan’s school board meeting Wednesday evening to urge the school district to loosen its mask policies. Ketchikan’s schools currently require students and staff to wear face masks at school when COVID-19 case numbers in the community are high.
Parent Angela Putrino said she’d testified against masks before and hoped the school board would listen.
“We’ve seen many of you around the community exercising your freedom of choice, choosing not to wear a mask in the grocery store, having an intimate lunch where social distancing was not practiced,” she said. “And we as parents expect that same freedom of choice on whether or not our kids are required to wear a mask in school.”
Others urged the school district not to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine for students. Some said they believed their students had been unnecessarily prevented from attending school because of quarantine and symptom screening requirements. The school board also heard from students, including Ketchikan High School senior Avery Thomas.
“I am a very physical and visual person. I’m a very hands-on learner, and I need to see what’s happening to understand a concept,” she said. “That includes mouths — when people are explaining things to me, I have a very hard time understanding what my teachers are saying when teaching with masks on.”
Ketchikan’s teachers took a different view. Ketchikan Education Association President Gara Williams argued there could be financial implications of rolling back pandemic policies.
“We’ve had very, very few staff actually get sick, but these costs have been astronomical to our health insurance,” she said. “Our district just can’t afford for us to cut any mitigation efforts. We can’t afford if our staff gets sick.”
The board voted earlier this month to spend $1.4 million of federal aid money to cover health insurance claims related to COVID-19.
Superintendent Melissa Johnson said she would bring the district’s COVID-19 plans back to the board at its next meeting for consideration .
Board President Stephen Bradford thanked community members for speaking out.
“We’ve got a lot of parents coming now that are interested in COVID and the policies related to that. I hope they continue their interest, and it carries over to test scores and everything else that is important to the education of our children,” he said.
[More from Wednesday’s meeting: Two new members and a veteran elected as Ketchikan’s new school board officers]
Board member Bridget Mattson said she appreciated their concerns. But she emphasized that the district’s pandemic plan was the product of consensus.
“We made some strong compromises in order to get us started in school, and we promised that we would review after a couple of months,” she said. “And we are keeping that promise. There’s not something non-transparent that’s going on. We’ve kept our promise, we are — we will be reviewing it.”
Board member Jordan Tabb said he saw the district’s COVID-19 policies as protecting the right of all students to attend public schools.
“Any discussion of any possible strategy that ultimately says, ‘Well, if this student or this family doesn’t feel safe, they can go do something else,’ is a non-starter for me, personally, because I see that as impacting their ability to have a safe, free and equal education,” he said.
Board member Nicole Anderson said she hoped the pending authorization of COVID-19 vaccines for elementary school-age children would allow the district to relax some restrictions.
“I think that that’s always been one of those goals is that once those are available, that we can start to see some normalcy and, and while it will of course be parental choice on whether or not to vaccinate your child, I think that opens up the realm for discussion as to what we’re doing going forward,” Anderson said.
Despite high COVID-19 case numbers in the community, Ketchikan’s schools have stayed open after two brief closures earlier in the school year.
The board meets again Nov. 10.
Disclosure: Stephen Bradford is the husband of a member of KRBD’s nonprofit board of directors. The board is not involved in news coverage.