Fairbanks schools will start requiring masks next week. Mat-Su and Kenai, both grappling with surging COVID-19 infections, are still going without.

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Sep. 10—WASILLA — As Fairbanks area schools shift to universal masking next week, Alaska's two other big road-system districts, in Mat-Su and on the Kenai Peninsula, have stuck to voluntary policies.

But surging COVID-19 cases are proving disruptive in both districts — and prompting new conversations.

Fairbanks North Star Borough School District will start requiring masks in all school buildings and at activities Monday, through the first semester. The school board voted 5-2 in favor Tuesday. More than 900 people watching the meeting via Facebook posted more than 2,500 comments before it ended at nearly midnight.

The Anchorage School District has required masks in buildings and on buses since school started this year.

Matanuska-Susitna Borough and Kenai Peninsula Borough school districts are operating under mitigation plans that don't require universal masking but require face coverings if COVID-19 outbreaks start.

Alaska is in the midst of an unprecedented surge in COVID-19 cases and record hospitalizations. Both Mat-Su and Kenai are home to high numbers of new cases and hospitals operating at or beyond capacity.

Absenteeism rates in students and school staff rose this week to nearly 25% in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District, officials say.

Mat-Su district officials have no immediate plans to discuss mitigation measures. The school board agenda for its next meeting Wednesday does not include any COVID-related items.

But the district on Thursday emailed a survey asking families and staff if they favor optional masks, universal masks, or masks only during times of widespread transmission. The survey also asked about other measures. People can respond through Sunday.

Most respondents opposed masking in a similar survey in June, before the highly infectious delta variant triggered a dramatic surge in new cases prompting masking in 19 out of 46 schools and total closures of two others.

Meadow Lakes Elementary closed to students this week. There weren't enough teachers to keep the school near Wasilla open. Students shifted to remote learning through at least Friday.

Teacher shortages, multiple outbreaks and wide transmission of COVID-19 also forced Snowshoe Elementary in Wasilla into remote learning this week, leaving families scrambling for child care.

Since school started last month, Mat-Su as of Wednesday had reported 723 COVID-19 cases in students and staff, according to district spokesperson Jillian Morrissey. More than 10% of the teachers in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District were out, 112 out of 1027.

Mat-Su has 1,100 people eligible to sub but only about 350 actively working in schools, Morrissey said. The school board earlier this month approved a pay increase for substitutes.

Nine positions at Meadow Lakes couldn't be filled by substitutes, triggering this week's building closure, Morrissey said.

For comparison, the Anchorage School District on Wednesday had 189 teacher absences out of 3,050 total or about 6%, according to spokesperson Lisa Miller. There were 313 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in students and staff as of Thursday. The district has not had to close a classroom due to lack of staffing, Miller said.

Meanwhile, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District plans to discuss mitigation measures like masking at a work session at Homer High School on Monday, according to district spokesperson Pegge Erkeneff. There will be an update from the superintendent and time for questions and answers, but no action can be taken.

By Thursday, COVID-19 outbreaks within the district had prompted 15 of 42 schools to require masking. Two schools were operating under remote-only instruction.

So far this year, the district is reporting 239 cases in students and staff plus another 1,377 close contacts.

School officials presiding over the masking debate, a public health issue overlaid with politics and personal beliefs, say they're feeling tremendous pressure from families on both sides of the issue.

The federal Centers for Disease Control in July recommended universal masking inside schools for all staff and students, vaccinated and unvaccinated. State health officials say masking inside schools helps limit the spread of the virus, along with vaccinations, testing, ventilation, and social distancing.

They point to the case of an unvaccinated teacher in California who took off her mask to read and infected half her class.

With school getting underway around the country, children represented one in four Americans testing positive for COVID-19 last week, according to a new report.

Alaska's children are contracting the virus at rates among the highest in the country, although with low rates of hospitalization and no deaths, according to the report from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children's Hospital Association. Alaska was second only to Vermont nationally for the number of COVID-19 cases in children out of total cases reported and 11th for per capita cases among children.

As of the beginning of September, people under 20 had Alaska's highest seven-day average COVID-19 case rate, according to Alaska Department of Health and Social Services data.

Children under 12 aren't eligible for vaccinations that could protect them from infection, health officials say.

Providers are starting to see more children in hospitals, several said this week, though studies show the number of children who get hospitalized and get sick enough to need ICU care has stayed fairly low.

"School is back in session, so you do have more transmission," Dr. Mishelle Nace, a Fairbanks pediatrician who serves on the state's school health safety team, said during a briefing Wednesday. "Some are wearings masks and some are not."

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