Juneau offers alternative to masking for some high school athletes

Juneau’s high school basketball and hockey players no longer have to wear masks while playing the game. (Photo courtesy Klas Stolpe)

Juneau’s high school basketball and hockey players no longer have to wear masks while playing the game. 

Juneau School District Superintendent Bridget Weiss granted the exception earlier this week, saying those athletes can instead participate in increased testing. She said the alternative will be available as long as the district also has enough supplies to maintain its test-to-stay policy.

“[That’s] because our very first priority is keeping kids in school, and our test-to-stay protocol allows that to happen now where it didn’t before,” Weiss said. “We don’t have to quarantine students when they become a close contact because we have access to testing.”

Bridget Weiss is the superintendent of the Juneau School District.
Bridget Weiss is the superintendent of the Juneau School District. (Photo courtesy of Bridget Weiss)

The change only applies to players who are actively participating in one of the two sports. That means coaches and athletes seated on the bench still have to wear face coverings.

“Conditions change,” Weiss said, “but for now, even with the increased pace of omicron working its way through our community, we feel like the testing protocol is actually a better mitigation strategy than the masks because if somebody is positive, we will catch them earlier.”

To play in home games unmasked, athletes will take a rapid test the day of the event. For away games, traveling players will need to test negative within 48 hours of the trip using the more accurate PCR test. Players will be testing two to three times a week with those requirements, so they will not have to test for each day of practice.

These rules apply to both vaccinated and unvaccinated student athletes. The only exception to the testing rule is if a player has had COVID-19 within the last 90 days.

During Tuesday’s school board meeting, Thunder Mountain High School’s boys’ basketball coach John Blasco said he supports the change because the athletes can’t perform at their best while wearing masks.

“I’ve had players have masks get knocked off and they have to pick ‘em up and catch up to the game,” Blasco said. “We preach communication, and when you’re playing the game of basketball, it’s not a simple conversation, it’s loud yelling and every time you yell loudly your mask falls off.”

Blasco said his team did experience a COVID-19 outbreak over winter break, but the spread didn’t happen on the court.

“It came [from] elsewhere, and we are working to improve mitigation measures off the court,” Blasco said. “[It was] very unfortunate but we caught it and we shut down and protected the kids within the program.”

During the same school board meeting, member Emil Mackey said he was worried about students putting themselves at risk in other ways during team trips.

Emil Mackey poses for a portrait at KTOO on Sept. 7, 2018 (Photo by David Purdy/KTOO)

“Numerous social media posts have been screen grabbed and sent to me (and probably others too) of players off the court taking selfies unmasked in Las Vegas or wherever they’re at,” Mackey said. “That’s a concern because that’s a violation of our strategy.”

Superintendent Weiss said the district was looking into travel practices and would bring back some rules that were in place earlier in the pandemic, like having fewer students per hotel room. But she also admitted that coaches only have so much control over off-the-court student behavior. 

In addition to the increased testing for all students who want to play unmasked, weekly PCR testing is still required for all unvaccinated athletes and coaches.

Bridget Dowd

Local News Reporter, KTOO

I keep tabs on what’s happening in Juneau’s classrooms for the families they serve and the people who work in them. My goal is to shine a light on both stories of success and the cracks that need to be filled, because I believe a good education is the basis of a strong community.

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