Anchorage School District recommends universal masking for new school year

Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop at Huffman Elementary School on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020.
Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop at Huffman Elementary School on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop is recommending universal masking inside district buildings according to a letter sent to families Saturday evening. 

“These past few weeks I have gathered information, heard from parents and staff, and spoken with experts. The science tells us the new variant is highly contagious, is circulating around the globe, and is at a high rate in our community,” Bishop said. 

The letter outlined a mitigation plan for the school year which encourages parents to keep sick children at home, continue to offer vaccination clinics to those who are eligible, and not require close contacts to quarantine if they are vaccinated.   

RELATED: Alaska reports three more COVID-19 deaths, high case counts continue 

Families have been eagerly awaiting a decision from the district as other federal and national organizations have updated their mask guidance for schools in recent weeks. The highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus has led to a surge in cases across the country and throughout Alaska, just weeks before school is about to begin for many students. 

Parent groups on all sides of the debate have been organizing email writing campaigns and plans to testify at the next school board meeting, Tuesday, Aug. 3. 

In an interview last week, the superintendent called the feedback “divisive” and evenly split between families who want a mask mandate and parents who don’t, but the district will continue to follow the science, Bishop said.

The school board will discuss the superintendent’s recommendation at the next board meeting. 

Read the full letter below. 

Dear Students, Families, Employees, and Community Members,

The countdown is on for the start of the 2021-2022 school year! Over the coming days, principals, teachers, and staff will begin the exciting migration back to buildings, where we are planning a strong start for our students to the new school year. You can anticipate a twice-monthly letter as you had last year, sharing the latest learning updates. These updates will arrive in your inbox on or near the first and fifteenth of each month.

With just weeks to go until the first bell, I have received questions from many parents and community members about the upcoming school year, as the COVID risk levels in our community shift. We have learned much about COVID while on this rollercoaster ride of a pandemic; when we know better, we do better. What we know about in-person learning is that with proper mitigation, schools have not been a vector of spread. The District successfully ran its largest summer learning program in years, with more than 9,000 students participating in some form of in-person learning between June and August. During our summer school programs, we had less than 10 confirmed COVID cases and no known spread.

With the confidence we have built in mitigating COVID, we approach the new school year with optimism, while being cognizant of the new Delta variant that is rapidly spreading across the globe and has reached our community. Our goal is to make ASD buildings the safest buildings in Anchorage for our students to flourish and learn in a full-length school day. With this goal and the consideration of community feedback, public health recommendations, and the current community risk level, I would like to share with you the 2021-2022 Return to School Operational Guidelines, Start Strong.

Our mitigation plan this year focuses on how to continue accelerated learning in person, while allowing for full participation in activities, clubs, and social learning opportunities. We know school activities are important to student development. The updated mitigation plan focuses primarily on:

  1.     Universal masking will be required for all individuals while inside any ASD school or building. Some exceptions will apply. Masking while outside is optional.
  2.     Keep ASD Symptom Free. We must all do our part to minimize viral spread. Please stay home and get tested if you are experiencing ANY symptoms.
  3.     Cleaning and Disinfecting. Regular cleaning of classrooms, buses, and offices will continue. Hand sanitizer will be readily available and frequent handwashing will be encouraged. Enhancements and upgrades have been made to building HVAC systems to allow for optimal ventilation and air exchange.
  4.     Keeping students and staff in the learning environment. The District will continue to make COVID-19 vaccine clinics available to eligible students (with parental consent), staff, and community members through a contracted provider. Additionally, following new guidance from the CDC, asymptomatic, properly masked students and fully vaccinated individuals will not be required to quarantine if deemed a close contact.

These past few weeks I have gathered information, heard from parents and staff, and spoken with experts. The science tells us the new variant is highly contagious, is circulating around the globe, and is at a high rate in our community. Given the rapid rise of COVID cases in Anchorage and the new public health recommendations provided last week by the CDC, I will recommend this mitigation plan to the Anchorage School Board. The Board will review and discuss it during its August 3 meeting.

As we look ahead, I would like to thank you for your patience and perseverance. I foresee a strong school start with a spectrum of opportunities for our students. I am confident with proper mitigation and a laser focus on learning we will have an excellent school year. Please know ASD continues to offer options for your family in school, at home, or a combination of both. To find the latest and greatest on flexible solutions within ASD, please visit the District website.


Dr. Deena Bishop

ASD Superintendent


Bartlett High School seniors reach top of their class by leaning on ten years of friendship

three highschool students pose in front of sign that reads: bartlett high school
Allysa Wesierski (left), Andrés Arias (center), and Jessica Woo (right) pose outside of Bartlett High School in early May 202`, a week before they graduate at the top of their class. (Hannah Lies/Alaska Public Media)

As 18-year-old Allysa Wesierski thinks back to first meeting her friend, Jessica Woo, she recalled Woo was an ambitious student, even in elementary school.

“We met in second grade, and I remember that she wanted, very proudly, to be the first female president of the United States,” said Wesierski.

Woo jokingly rolled her eyes at the comment but conversation between herself, Wesierski, and their friend Andrés Arias is easy as they call up memories and exchange knowing glances about the difficulties of their AP English Literature class.

The trio will be graduating from Anchorage’s Bartlett High School this year, each of them at the top of their class. Wesierski is Bartlett’s salutatorian, and Woo will share the title of valedictorian with Arias. This is the first time Bartlett will have co-valedictorians. Bartlett Principal Sean Prince says their transcripts are virtually identical.

high school girl smiles for photo in front of a building
Allysa Wesierski, the salutatorian of the Bartlett High School class of 2021, smiles for a photo outside of Bartlett High School on May 4th, 2021. (Hannah Lies/Alaska Public Media)

The friends have no qualms about sharing the title. They’ve done almost everything together, from taking classes to becoming Eagle Scouts — the highest ranking one can get in the Boys Scouts program.

Wesierski and Woo are part of the first class of girls to join the Boy Scouts and are believed to be the first two girls in Alaska to reach Eagle Scout status. It was an achievement they had to make quickly since the organization only officially began allowing girls to earn the ranking in 2019.

They all have a deep passion for hiking and camping and the outdoors, Wesierski said. Woo said they have similar humor. But Arias said the motivation and drive to achieve is what makes them such good friends. They supported each other when they decided to sign up for their first advanced placement courses.

“We had never taken something like this. And we didn’t really have that information from our parents of what it takes to get on a college readiness track,” Arias said. “So I think we learned a lot of things together. We entered a lot of uncharted territory together.”

a highschool boy smiles in front of birch trees
Andrés Arias, the Co-valedictorian of the Bartlett Class of 2021, smiles for a photo outside of Bartlett High School on May 4, 2021. (Hannah Lies/Alaska Public Media)

Each of the students come from different and diverse backgrounds: Weiserski was adopted from the Philippines, Arias’ parents immigrated from Mexico and Woo’s family is from Brazil.

While their parents continually pushed them to do their best academically, they didn’t always know the ins and outs of college preparation. The students figured it out together. That alone would be a feat, but adding a pandemic on top of it just made that challenge even greater.

three high school students sit on steps and smile at the camera
Andrés Arias (left), Jessica Woo (center), and Allysa Wesierski (right)sit together on May 4th, 2021, one of the last days at school before their graduation at the top of their class at Barlett High School. (Hannah Lies/Alaska Public Media)

Wesierski said she hit one of her lowest moments right around the time she was applying to college.

“I remember genuinely being worried that I wasn’t going to get into anywhere. And that, alongside the stressors of the change and the new platform, that became really stressful,” Wesierski said. “I was like, ‘Maybe it was just a fluke. Maybe everything has just been easy for me in the past. So I don’t know if I deserve to be where I am’.”

But it wasn’t a fluke.

Wesierski and her friends are moving on to attend some of the country’s most prestigious universities: Wesierski will be attending Stanford, and after deliberating between six different Ivy League acceptance letters, Arias chose Yale. Woo is going to NYU.

It’s not just a big deal for them and their families but also the Bartlett community. Woo said Bartlett often gets overlooked in terms of producing high-achieving students.

“I think that’s part of the reason why we push so hard — because we’re proud to be from Bartlett, and we’re really proud to represent that. Diversity does equal strength, it does equal success,” said Woo.

highschool girl smiles for a photo in front of a blue building
Jessica Woo, the Co-valedictorian of the Bartlett Class of 2021, poses for a portrait outside of Bartlett High School on May 4th, 2021. (Hannah Lies/Alaska Public Media)

This year’s graduation ceremonies will look a bit more traditional than last year’s virtual ceremonies, car parades, and socially-distant celebrations. Many Anchorage high schools will be hosting graduation outdoors in their respective football stadiums, and students will be able to have a few guests.

In their student speeches, Woo, Arias, and Wesierski each plan to highlight the resiliency and adaptability of their class after a year of drastic changes.

They didn’t get to attend traditional events like prom, and Wesierski said initially she felt robbed of a typical senior year experience. But she said what they lost shouldn’t overshadow what her class has accomplished.

“I wanted to emphasize and implore everybody to kind of take a pause and recognize graduating from high school as the great achievement that it is,” Wesierski said. “And also recognizing the people that have helped us here because Bartlett is a community but more than that, it’s a family.”

Despite moving on to different schools for the first time in years, the students say their bond will carry them through this next period of change.