Nome Schools require masking until reaching 80 percent vaccination mark
By Julia Lerner
Nome Public Schools plans to implement universal masking at each school building in Nome until at least 80 percent of the population of the building, including students, staff and teachers, are vaccinated, NPS superintendent Jamie Burgess announced during last week’s board of education meeting.
Burgess introduced the school district’s updated COVID-19 mitigation plan at the August 10 meeting, where she discussed plans for student athletes and updates to the school’s safety protocols.
“We are required under the American Rescue Plan Act to review and potentially modify this plan no less than every six months,” she told school board members. “The guiding principles when putting this plan together are the beliefs that students learn best in an in-person school environment, that students deserve a safe school environment with layered protection protocols from the COVID-19 virus, and that the district will consult with its health advisory team and discuss the CDC, state and federal guidelines to make the best choices for the students of Nome.”
Burgess said one of the district’s key COVID-19 mitigation tools is the return to universal masking for the school population, particularly in the elementary school building, where students are not yet eligible for vaccination.
“Nome Elementary School will implement universal masking until the vaccine is available for children under the age of 12,” she explained during the meeting. “When the school reaches that 80 percent benchmark, we can consider release of universal masking.”
Students enrolled at the charter school, the Anvil City Science Academy, will also be required to wear masks.
Currently, around 61 percent of Nome middle and high school students are vaccinated, so students at the Nome-Beltz campus are required to wear a mask regardless of vaccination status.
When students are not present in the building, teachers and staff members will not be required to wear masks, as more than 90 percent of NPS employees are already vaccinated, Burgess told the board.
Burgess stressed the importance of effective masking inside and said that face shields are no longer allowed outside of specific classrooms.
“Last year, face shields were listed as an alternative to masking, however, between the updated information we have on transmission and the rise of the Delta variant in our communities, face shields will be worn by our kindergarten through second grade teachers, during instruction where it’s crucial for children to see the teachers mouth and lips,” she said. “That’s part of phonics and reading instructions, and it’s very important for children to be able to see how the teacher’s mouth is moving, so they can wear face shields for that, but anytime other than that, they will wear a mask when they’re working with children.”
Burgess says masks are crucial to limiting COVID-19 related “close contact” quarantines.
Over the summer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated their COVID-19 related definitions for close contacts, and one new addition says students who are in the K-12 indoor classroom setting who come within three-to-six feet of an infected individual will not need to quarantine for 7 to 14 days if both the infected individual and the exposed student “correctly and consistently wore well-fitting masks,” Burgess said.
“Last spring, when we had a few cases in the elementary school, we had entire classrooms go down under quarantine, and we had some children that were COVID positive that were attending school for a short period of time until they were identified,” Burgess said. Mask wearing, she said, “will mean, for many students more time in school and less time outside of school.”
Burgess said that the school district can opt to release or reinstate universal masking at any point during the school year.
The Bering Strait School District is also requiring universal masking for the start of the school year.
“Right now, we are requiring masks for all staff, vaccinated or not, through the Labor Day weekend, and then we’ll reassess for September 1,” BSSD Superintendent Dr. Bobby Bolen told the Nugget. “We plan to open face-to-face instruction on August 25. We have to think about the safety of everybody, all of our students and the communities. [Masking] is a small price to pay for that added level of security until we can ensure that everybody’s safe.”
Neither school district is mandating vaccines for students and staff, though Bolen says that could come later for BSSD teachers. More than 90 percent of NPS staffers and teachers are already vaccinated, though the number is lower among BSSD staff.
“We are not [mandating vaccines] at this time,” Bolen said. “Not until, probably FDA approval or board approval. Right now it’s just highly recommended.”
Both school districts are looking forward to student athletics and other activities this year.
“We were able to cobble together some sports seasons last year, and we hope to do our best to have more opportunities for students to participate and play this year,” Burgess told the school board during their August meeting.
Burgess says the current plan is to allow students to travel between Nome and other communities when both communities have low COVID-19 transmissions and minimal restrictions. Travel between Nome and communities with moderate rates of transmission will be restricted to vaccinated staff and students. No one will be permitted to travel between communities with high transmission rates.
Spectators will be allowed at some athletic events, as long as watchers are willing to wear masks and practice social distancing, Burgess said.
Nome’s current rate of transmission of COVID-19 cases is low, but that could change quickly, given the rapid rate of spread of the Delta variant. There are currently seven active COVID-19 cases in Nome, as of Tuesday, though several regional communities have much higher rates of spread. Two villages, St. Michael and Stebbins, are experiencing outbreaks of cases, and BSSD is working on plans to allow students to safely start school next week.
Stebbins currently has 132 positive COVID-19 cases in the community, meaning face-to-face instruction will not be possible for the time being.
“The plan right now is distance-delivery,” explained Bolen. “The staff are being transported into the school now with no contact with the public, straight from their housing to the school where they’re doing their in-service. They’re getting things prepared, and then being transported back to their housing. On the 25th, we’ll plan to have [distance learning] packets ready and will service the community as best we can until they’ve reached their 14 days without any new infections.”
Following the discussion of the COVID-19 mitigation plan, board members discussed the approval of an “activity course installation” at the Nome-Beltz Middle and High School. The activity course is designed for middle-school aged students, and the district took proposals from local contractors for design and installation.
The proposal the district received had significantly higher costs than anticipated, Burgess said, though the district is able to pay for the excess through the CIP fund and grants. After discussion, the unanimously approved the activity course installation. They’re hoping it will be available to students “before the snow flies” this year, Burgess said.
Board members also heard reports from the district’s business manager and approved the second reading of board policies related to expenditures, purchasing procedures, contracts, board committees and board representatives.
The next NPS School Board meeting will be a work session at the Nome Elementary School Library on August 24 at 5:30 p.m. September’s board meeting will take place at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, September 14, at the NES library.