Face masks might be on back-to-school supply lists for Anchorage K-12 students this fall.
Also, teachers may be monitoring students’ hand-washing schedules. Desks might be spaced at 6-foot intervals. Kids may eat lunches in classrooms instead of gathering in a cafeteria. And to limit class sizes, schools may even alternate the days or times that children go into school buildings.
These are just some of the scenarios the Anchorage School District is considering as it works to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 for the coming school year.
But no matter what, school officials say when it is time to resume classes in August, school will not be the same.
“I don’t think anything we do in the future is going to be as it once was,” said district superintendent Deena Bishop during a community briefing last month.
School buildings were closed statewide in April as the state attempted to thwart the spread of COVID-19. Whether the district will decide to hold in-person classes in August depends on the state’s medical evidence at the time and how the state allows schools to operate, Bishop said Tuesday.
The district is preparing for the unpredictable, and there are seemingly endless variables to suss out: How will it safely transport kids to and from school? How will kids eat lunch or play together during recesses without the virus spreading? Will everyone need personal protective equipment? How will the schools keep medically fragile students and immunocompromised staff safe?
The list of questions goes on. Once the district pinpoints the answers, that will bring into focus a picture of the next school year.
The state’s Department of Education and Early Development is currently drafting a plan for a “restart and reentry framework” for Alaska’s K-12 school districts, in partnership with the Department of Health and Social Services.
The agencies will use federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to create statewide parameters for operating in three different COVID-19 risk levels — low, medium or high risk.
Creating the framework is a massive collaboration involving input from all of Alaska’s school districts, each with their own unique set of issues, said Lisa Parady, executive director of the Alaska Council of School Administrators.
“There is no one-size-fits-all approach for districts,” Parady said of reopening schools.
Using the state’s framework, the Anchorage School District will build its own plan for operating at each risk level. The district will formulate its plan over the summer, said district spokesman Alan Brown, although there’s not yet a set date for when it will be released.
Even if school starts in-person as usual, the district will have extra health precautions in place, Bishop said during a school board meeting this week.
“ 'Low-risk’ does not mean ‘the way it used to be,’ ” she said.
That might mean everyone will need to wear a face mask in school, depending on the state recommendations or requirements at the time. It also may mean limiting the size of student gatherings, like when large groups of students pour into hallways between classes.
But exactly what each of the state’s three COVID-19 risk levels mean for school operations is still being worked out at the state level, said Anchorage Education Association President Tom Klaameyer.
The state’s medical experts will declare what the statewide risk level is for schools. But municipalities and districts will be able to move to higher risk levels if there is a spike in COVID-19 sickness locally, Klaameyer said.
"We don’t want kids to come back and be afraid to go to school. We don’t want parents to be afraid to send their kids to school,” Klaameyer said.
A high-risk scenario likely means that school buildings would be closed and classes online, Bishop said Tuesday. The district is preparing to launch its classes as “online hybrid" so it can switch between in-person and online learning as risk levels change.
“It’s very important to understand that we could move in and out of any of these risk levels at any time during the year," she said.
“We could be going just fine in the fall and then have a two-week off," she said. “We’re going to become very comfortable with blended online learning,” Bishop said.
Planning for a medium-risk scenario is the most complex, and this district is not yet sure what that will mean for in-person classes.
“This is where we are really kind of recreating a wheel,” Brown said.
The district is exploring options for what it calls a “staggered start,” which would reduce class sizes, he said.
That could mean that students are on alternating schedules, going to school buildings for in-person instruction on different days of the week, or on split-day schedules, Bishop said during the school board meeting. Students would then be able to work on their hybrid classes at home, too.
But that scenario is problematic for parents who need to work and can’t monitor their kids’ educations at home, Klaameyer said.
"They have to work every day, so what do they do on the days or the afternoons or the mornings when their students aren’t at school? " he said.
Since schools have shut down, some students have not been heard from, despite the efforts of districts, Parady said. It will also be tricky for schools to provide equitable education for students in special education programs while classes are online or hybrid, she said.
“That’s a real serious part as we pivot into this new environment — there’s students who we have to pay even more attention to,” she said.
Some students may have experienced the death of a loved one due to the pandemic, Klaameyer said. And when in-person classes resume, young kids will have been isolated and away from the social and emotional learning they get from interactions with peers and teachers.
“Kids miss their teachers. Parents miss the structure they provide. Teachers miss the ability to direct their students’ learning progress,” Klaameyer said. “I’m holding out hope that we’ll be able to return to school with some semblance of order.”
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