A group of Wrangell elementary and middle school students – some accompanied by their parents – walked out of class Friday morning to protest the public school district’s requirement that they wear masks indoors.
As a couple of students gingerly pick their way up the icy hill next to Evergreen Elementary School, others take turns riding down on a neon orange sled. At the top of the hill, blue surgical masks curl onto the logs of a fire, as students throw their masks in. DaNika Smalley helps students pick out signs from a stack made by her fifth-grade daughter, McKenzie.
“Freedom of choice?” she asks, reading one sign, then flips to the next: “No more masks?”
It’s 10:30 on a Friday, and school is in session. But these elementary and middle-school students have left class to protest the Wrangell Public School District’s mask policies.
Fifth-grader Charlie Nelson says she and her classmate Clara Carney started protesting masks earlier this month.
“It’s been two years of me and Clara and our classmates wearing masks,” Nelson says, “And no one asked us how we felt about it. No one asked us if we liked it, they’ve just been forcing us to wear them, and I’m tired of it.”
Nelson and Carney both testified to the Wrangell School Board at its January meeting against the district’s masking policy, and say they’ve been sent home from school for refusing to wear masks in class.
Parent DaNika Smalley says her daughter, McKenzie, was also sent home. And that got students and parents thinking.
“A couple of parents messaged me and told me that the kids wanted to do something big,” Smalley says, “And a couple of them had mentioned a walkout. When she (McKenzie) came home after they got sent home on Monday, it kind of set in motion for us parents talking about actually doing this. So all we did was get a group text going and it just kind of spread like wildfire.”
By the fire, Logan Janssen holds a white cardboard sign that reads: “UnMask our children! Let them be kids!”
“No one can breathe in them and it’s just not right for school, and kids,” Janssen says. When asked if he thinks masks have helped in the pandemic, Janssen responds: “I think so. But we just don’t want masks in school.”
Janssen is there with his mom, Amanda, and some of his siblings. She explains her support for the walk-out: “I don’t like the fact that we’re masking our children because adults are scared. Children are the least affected. They’re not high risk. They have immune systems that work great.”
Fifth-grader Clara Carney crests the icy hill, a bit late to the walk-out.
“Well, actually, I got scared [to leave], a little bit,” she explains. But now that she’s here, she reiterates the message she shared with the school board earlier this week: “Masks don’t help at all, because kids just take off their masks and go to friends’ houses all the time.”
The students and parents protesting at the top of the hill said more kids wanted to be at the walk-out, but school policy kept some from attending.
DaNika Smalley said she was frustrated when she had to go in and get her kids out in person when she said she’d already communicated her support for them walking out over the phone.
“I went in and got the fifth graders because they had them all in the office,” she says, “And then I walked through and got my daughter and my son, and then we all just walked out.”
Superintendent Bill Burr explains the policy: “Parents have to check students out. That’s always been the board policy at the elementary because it’s a closed campus. They need parents’ permission, and parents would pick their students up in the office, like any other day.”
Jackson Carney – Clara Carney’s older brother, who is a seventh-grader – says it was a little easier to leave the middle school, even in the middle of a class period.
“We were in silent reading and you have to write down how many points you got, so we put down like 7.5 [points] because that’s how long we were there, and walked out,” he says.
But walking out isn’t without consequences for the middle schoolers.
“Some of us might not be able to do wrestling for this,” Carney explains, “But we believe in the cause.”
Carney and other students at the walk-out say they want students to have a say in the policy.
“It should be their choice,” he says. “They should have the choice. If they’re worried about it, wear a mask. If they’re not, no big deal. We’re just ready for life to be back to normal.”
The students say they’re committed to seeing masks being made optional in Wrangell Public Schools, and that they’ll stop organizing “once the school board listens,” according to Clara and Jackson Carney.
Wrangell’s school board discussed the first major update to the district’s mitigation plan at its January 17 meeting, but mask rule changes weren’t on the agenda. The changes mostly had to do with updated COVID testing and isolation requirements, following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s updated guidance in light of the omicron variant of COVID-19, as well as what counts as fully-vaccinated. Superintendent Burr says that’s because the district is trying to follow public health guidance.
“The CDC guidance, including the most recent, says that the recommendation is universal masking for all,” Burr told KSTK Friday. “We have – as a school district – kept our doors open this year, even during three spikes larger than the school closure last year.”
Plus, he says, Wrangell is in its largest documented spike of the pandemic so far.
“We’re currently in a pretty big spike for COVID cases here in Wrangell as well as in the state,” he says, continuing: “We’re going to look at all aspects of the mitigation plan as circumstances change. And I can’t say specifically [about reconsidering the school mask guidance], but it is on our list every time we look at the mitigation plan.”
The district is required by the federal government to review its mitigation plan at least twice a year, but Wrangell’s district administration and school board have been conducting more frequent reviews – at least every couple of months, if not every month.
Burr says that with students, parents, staff and the community following the schools’ strict mitigation plan, students have been able to stay in classes even as cases have swept through town: “And we feel that is a huge benefit to our students and Wrangell in general. So we are going to do everything that we can to keep our educational program running and our students receiving as much as possible. And we need help in that process. So although we have inconveniences from time to time, overall, we think we’re doing a good job in getting our students prepared for the future.”
Students who showed up to Friday’s walk-out say they’re talking about organizing another walk-out, but as of Friday afternoon, it hadn’t been publicly announced.
Get in touch with KSTK at email@example.com or (907) 874-2345.