By Melinda Munson

Changes in the Skagway School’s 2021-2022 mitigation plan now give students of all ages the option to go maskless, regardless of vaccination status. Testing to forego face coverings is not required.

“Cloth face coverings or face shields are encouraged to be worn at all times inside the building (lunch excluded). Masks will remain optional for all staff and students inside the building, in all outdoor settings and extracurricular activities,” the plan states.

“We still highly encourage masks,” said Superintendent Josh Coughran, noting the office has N-95 masks available to families.

At a recent visit to the school, it appeared a majority of students were choosing not to mask.

Dani Arnold, who has two children enrolled at Skagway School, was pleased by the changes to the mitigation plan. Previously, only those twelve and older could be maskless.

“I’m very happy for the children to be able to go to school in a somewhat normal atmosphere. If a parent doesn’t like it, they have the choice to make their kid wear it,” she said.

In a letter to the school board, Teacher Courtney Ellingson expressed her support for the changes to the mask policy.

“…We have many other layers of protection in place. Skagway did a great job of ensuring ease and support with testing, vaccination, travel protocols, etc. and at this point, I’d say we’re doing a pretty good job of managing COVID. The logical next step would be to encourage masks but offer choice.”

Students involved in afterschool activities must test at the school once per week. Anyone traveling on behalf of the district, student or staff, will be tested before departure and three to five days after return, in which case a mask is required until receipt of a negative COVID-19 test.

Parents whose children are not in extracurricular activities can contact the office and request their child be periodically tested. The school uses rapid antigen testing kits overseen by trained administrative staff. According to the Food and Drug Administration, antigen tests detect the newest COVID-19 variant, omicron, but “they may have reduced sensitivity.”

Parent Raniyah Bakr, who is currently caring for a child with COVID and dealing with the illness herself, wishes the school board took a more cautious approach to mitigation. She recently traveled to Whitehorse and is unsure where the exposure occurred.

“This is not a great time to take masks off,” she said, citing growing research that suggests patients are testing positive with omicron long after they’ve been contagious.

She’s particularly concerned for her preschooler who is too young to be vaccinated.

“I don’t feel like my kids are safe. I don’t feel like my preschooler is being looked out for,” she said.

Bakr has been isolating from her partner and daughter for two weeks.

“It’s not just a cold,” she warned.

The district will implement universal masking if there is “transmission” within the school. Transmission is defined as three cases of unknown origin within five days. Students can opt out of universal masking by testing negative for two consecutive weeks and continuing to test negative on a twice weekly basis.

The superintendent reserves the right to require masks at any time, regardless of testing status. Parents will not be notified if a student in their child’s classroom tests positive for COVID. Close contacts who have a positive COVID patient in their household can continue to attend school if they mask and test at home each day for the length of what would have been the quarantine period.

Skagway School is now hiring a nurse, in part to help manage COVID-19 testing. The funding comes from a federal grant, obtained by the municipality, and will last about a year. The school will then apply to other grant sources to keep the position filled. 

As far as Coughran knows, the school has never had a full-time medical professional.

“I’ve never seen a school nurse (here),” Coughran said.

The position closes Feb. 18.