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Anchorage School District plans to bring back pre-K through 2nd grade students next month

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The Anchorage School District on Thursday announced a new plan to bring some students back into classrooms this November, starting with students in pre-kindergarten through second grade, and high-needs special education students through sixth grade.

On Nov. 16, in the middle of the second quarter, the district’s youngest students will begin attending in-person school, superintendent Deena Bishop announced in an email.

School will be held five days a week, 5 1/2 hours per day, from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. The district will also open the Whaley School, which serves high-needs students.

“As we continue into month seven of this global pandemic it is becoming abundantly clear that not having our students in schools is taking a toll — a toll on our students' learning outcomes, a toll on their mental and emotional well-being, and a toll on our entire community,” Bishop wrote in the email. “We’ve reached a tipping point in weighing the various criteria and considerations for holding in-person school.”

“As we adjust to being back in school, we will make the determination on when to bring the remainder of our elementary students back, followed by middle and high school," Bishop wrote Thursday.

Schools in Anchorage have been closed to in-person classes since March, when the coronavirus pandemic shut down much of Alaska. The school year began with all classes online-only on Aug. 20, although the district has brought small groups of young students back to six elementary schools as part of a reading tutoring program.

The district has for months struggled to implement new ways to educate its students online. Bishop has said that current distance-learning system is not enough and is failing students and families. Some parents and students have testified at school board meetings, expressing frustration at the virtual programs and continued school closures.

“... It is clear we are not meeting the needs of all our students,” Bishop said. “Declining achievement on learning data, the doubling of failing grades, reports of self-harm, and other social and emotional challenges underscore the struggles our teachers, students, and parents are having this school year.”

The district’s most vulnerable students and families are struggling as parents balance their jobs while supporting at-home learning. Many working families have been left without child care.

Thursday’s announcement marks the third time this school year that Bishop has announced a plan for resuming some in-person classes. Both previous announcements have resulted in postponements and changes to the district’s plans.

Most recently, in September Bishop released a plan to bring elementary school students back in October but postponed it two weeks later, citing rising coronavirus case numbers and widespread community transmission of the virus.

At the time of postponement, one of the key metrics the district was tracking to evaluate the risk of in-person school, the rate of new cases within the last 14 days, was well above the highest-risk level category. The rate has since grown higher, at 428 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people, according to district data.

Thursday’s announcement has prompted outcry from teachers who fear returning to in-person classes while the city’s COVID-19 case counts are reaching new all-time highs and continue to trend upwards.

Anchorage Education Association president Corey Aist said he has been flooded with messages and phone calls from teachers who fear for the health and safety of themselves, their families and their students.

“A lot of members are asking — ‘What changed? How did the criteria for going back to school change when the pandemic is worse than it’s ever been in Anchorage?’ ” Aist said.

On Wednesday the state reported four new deaths tied to the coronavirus, among them an Anchorage woman in her 20s. A total of 65 Alaskans have died with COVID-19 as of Thursday, according to the Alaska health department, though the state’s death rate per 100,000 residents is among the lowest in the country.

On Thursday, the state reported 2,837 active cases among Anchorage residents.

Although schools are closed for in-person classes, staff and teachers still go to work in school buildings. There are 24 active cases of COVID-19 among staff and students in the school district, according to data the district released Thursday by email. There are also 116 people in the district in quarantine after having close contact with someone who tested positive.

Two sports programs — Dimond bowling and Eagle River football — have teams in quarantine.

A survey of the teachers' association in September showed that 25% of teachers absolutely did not want to return to classrooms. Aist said that percentage has likely increased as the pandemic worsens in Alaska.

Teachers are being forced to choose between their jobs and their health and safety, he said.

"There could be a large number of teachers who opt to take a leave of absence or resign,” he said.

Aist said he’s concerned that holding in-person school means coronavirus exposures could lead to long-term quarantines for teachers and staff, and worries what that means for students' continuity of learning.

“What is going to happen if we pull students out of their online environments, put them into face-to-face environments, and then have issues of quarantine, school blackouts? Possibly the district shutting down again, forcing everyone back to an online environment?” Aist said.

Bishop in an interview last week said that the district has implemented a mitigation plan that includes precautions like mask-wearing and social distancing, contact tracing and a coronavirus case reporting system. The district has successfully brought small groups of students back into classrooms for the reading program, she said.

“I feel strongly that what we can do does work, because we’ve demonstrated it,” she said.

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