Bethel City Council will hold a special meeting on Jan. 20 about masking during basketball games
The Lower Kuskokwim School District (LKSD) board met on Jan. 17. It voted to request that the Bethel City Council exempt the school from the citywide mask mandate. Now, during a special meeting on Jan. 20 at noon, the Bethel City Council is slated to vote on the issue. If the proposal passes, it would temporarily allow varsity basketball players to remove their masks for games.
The vote comes the day before Bethel is set to face off against Kodiak on Jan. 22 and Jan. 23. The vote will decide whether the athletes will have to wear masks when playing.
Under the city’s mask mandate, everyone in public settings must wear masks to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. LKSD athletics have not always been in compliance with the city’s mask mandate, though that changed during its home basketball games last weekend. Now the LKSD board is pushing for the city council to let the school district make its own rules.
At the Jan. 17 LKSD board meeting, parents and students spoke out against players masking during games. Some of the students said that wearing a mask during vigorous sports activities is not comfortable or safe.
But health experts say it is. Guidance from the Mayo Clinic says that it is safe to exercise, even vigorously, with a mask on. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that masks should be worn as much as possible. But it acknowledges that wearing masks during high intensity play may be “challenging for players.” The CDC does not say that wearing a mask while exercising is dangerous.
The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation (YKHC) also supports masking during sports, including basketball games.
Dr. Ellen Hodges, the chief of staff at YKHC, spoke during the school board meeting this week. She encouraged masking during sports to continue. She said that pediatric hospitalizations are skyrocketing during the current surge of the omicron variant. She said that basketball in the Y-K Delta has helped spread infections.
“Basketball has been associated with several very large outbreaks in our region. Not only students who attended the games or played the sports, but also many others who are secondary cases associated with the outbreak,” said Hodges.
Two weekends ago, Scammon Bay hosted a basketball tournament. The week before the tournament, Scammon Bay had just three new COVID-19 cases. The week after, it had 94. That’s about 15% of the village testing positive for COVID-19 in the span of a week.
A similar thing happened in Kodiak following a basketball tournament earlier this year. The Bethel varsity teams went to the tournament. Afterwards, several players tested positive for COVID-19. Cases rates were so high at the Kodiak school that it moved to remote learning.
In Bethel, some critics of the current masking rules during games say that the school’s testing policy should suffice. The policy asks visiting students to test 24 hours before traveling to Bethel.
On Jan. 20 at noon, the Bethel City Council is slated to vote on temporarily suspending the mask mandate for student athletes during this weekend’s games. And next week during its regular meeting, the council is set to vote on whether to permanently exempt student athletes from the mask mandate. Click here to participate in the meeting.
A previous version of this story referred to the games against Kodiak as the Donlin Gold Tournament and said that LKSD requires incoming teams to test 24 hours before coming to Bethel. That is incorrect. The tournament has been canceled. However, Bethel will still be playing Kodiak over the weekend and LKSD is asking that the teams test 24 hours before coming to Bethel.