In advance of the April 6 Anchorage municipal election, the Anchorage Daily News asked candidates running for Anchorage School Board a series of issue questions. These include questions suggested by readers. Read all the mayor and school board candidates’ responses here.
Q: How would you rate the school district’s performance during the pandemic — protecting public health, delivering quality education services, serving the community? What specifically would you have done differently?
SEAT B (1-year-term)
Rating: Average. COVID-19 presented unprecedented challenges which caused states to adopt each other’s policies and to make adjustments as further guidelines and evidence was given. What would be the most beneficial differences that we could have done as the Anchorage School Board is set the vision of giving parents and teachers/staff an educated option of whether or not they wanted to do face-to-face instruction, while simultaneously preparing our facilities with necessary health equipment and mitigation procedures in place for those who would stay, and approving a virtual curriculum for those who would be home. We would would also need to set the direction of utilizing our $25 million transportation service to extend routes to serve meals for families who do not have the capabilities for transportation to the schools where the food given to Title 1 students are located.
I would give them a C- overall. There didn’t seem to be much of a consistent plan and that is what I would have focused on the most. District leadership should have met over the summer to write a consistent plan for all schools to open. There are words written down but the application has not been logical in many cases. Some teachers did an excellent job in online learning and others not so good. There is absolutely no excuse for ASD to have been closed to in-person learning as it was and still is. It has been devastating for many students and their families. Families that had to work for a living were in a crisis with students not in school. Many of the most affected students were those the most in need. It is difficult to explain how private schools and schools an hour away can be opened for months, and ASD still not have their middle and high school students participating in in-class school. We could have opened with a phased-in plan and much sooner than we have done.
ASD grappled with unheard-of challenges this year, but what was ultimately missing was a common language, or framework, centered on a commitment to evidence-based decision making. In July, I publicly proposed an equitable, evidence-based return to school policy that would have prioritized socially-distanced, in-person education of elementary-aged students by taking over all available ASD real estate. It was not a perfect proposal, and offered some challenges, but it was a start for out-of-the-box problem solving. In November, I spoke against giving the district a blank check to return to school without a metric in place. The most recent CDC guidelines recognize that school transmission is associated with community transmission. I want ASD’s metrics to reflect the CDC’s latest updates and commit to the idea that returning to school should take place when community transmission is under control and is being suppressed.
It hard to say what I would have done differently. The world as a whole was not prepared to handled the pandemic. So, I think the school district did well. I believe it is crucial that our children return to school safely and soon. I continue to support the School District Administrative Policy and Procedure for virtual learning through computer-generated options, homeschooling and those parents who have selected to send their kids back to school.
I think the district’s response to the pandemic was slow and uncoordinated. There was so much time spent deliberating about how to get students back to school as it once existed, versus jumping quickly into action to restructure the approach to education so it served the needs of all kids in a new reality. I would have acted with more urgency to ensure ASD virtual and remote learning options were equitable, accessible, and offered high-quality instructional opportunities for kids no matter which option parents chose. I also would have focused on ensuring teachers and families were trained properly and thoroughly on how to navigate these new remote systems, and ensured that support was ongoing. I would have ensured that our students and teachers felt safe and heard, and started updating in-person learning spaces early on so that they were ready to accommodate students in accordance with COVID-19 safety protocols once in-person learning began again.
In a pandemic there are not, and there should never be, any special privileges on who among the students, faculty and staff should be vaccinated. Each student, teacher and staff member can become a super spreader. Since each of the teachers is a valued member that is increasingly hard to replace, we must do our best to protect their health and welfare and the students. It is our job! The requirements of wearing masks, social distancing and closing the schools rates an A+.
The ASD appropriately closed in March of 2020, but they did not plan well to reopen in the fall. Private schools and neighboring districts opened with CDC guidelines and mitigations, and have remained open with very few resets. Following the scientific data that was available regarding the safety of students in schools would have allowed students back in the classroom much sooner. Getting technology into the hands of the students was a good thing, however, the data coming out of virtual school is alarming. I would have opened schools sooner allowing for a hybrid model.
I rate the decision to close classroom instruction last spring positively. It put the safety of students and staff as its highest priority. I believe the connection to parents and students is rated poor, resulting in the loss of thousands of students that were not contacted. While teachers should be rated high for their commitment to helping all students, I believe the tools provided by the administration should be rated lower. ASD should have focused on the opportunity to select effective online instructional material that would have improved outcomes at home and when students return to the classroom. I believe ASD should have developed a comprehensive plan on providing more help to some students who need more assistance when schools were closed, and should have had a comprehensive plan on opening schools, such as providing lunches to all students.
ASD is a leader in public health, providing more vaccines than any organization in the state and serving as a model for districts nationwide. Our district has consistently provided meals during remote instruction, a vital public service. As a community partner, our district excels. But when it comes to delivering quality education, we have not met the needs of all our students. That’s not a criticism of effort. Teachers, who always work hard, have gone above and beyond to help their students learn. But already we have research showing children from wealthier homes fared better academically during school closures, while children from lower-income homes struggled significantly. This widening of the educational gap was entirely predictable and will have life-long consequences. If I were to do something differently, I would have pushed harder last summer to keep the needs of all children at the forefront of community decision-making and to prioritize safely re-opening schools first.
ASD has performed disgracefully. There has never been a need to close schools. I will not allow discrimination against those who cannot wear a mask or who choose not to vaccinate.
The district headed into the school year with a good plan of allowing families to choose what was best for their student’s learning while in the midst of the pandemic. Unfortunately, the district missed the mark by continually pushing back the start date of in-person learning, resulting in lower academic performance and increased student depression, as well as decreased intervention in cases of child abuse. As a school board member, I would have followed the CDC guidelines as well as that of the American Academy of Pediatrics for students to attend school in-person.
The ASD has performed the best that it can with distance learning. With almost a year without in-person learning – we have to focus our efforts and budget to improve English language and math proficiency and improve them from the current 40% average level. We had problems in the basics of reading and math. Parents and teachers have done as much as they can through the virtual classes, but young children need the daily group and teacher interaction to insure that these basic skills are learned and reinforced through classroom activities. It is hard for a teacher to measure through the virtual environment exactly how much a child has understood and retained of the subject being taught without having the ability to actually see and hear the child doing the school work. Isolation has been devastating for the mental health of many of our students.
The global pandemic has shown us the many strengths and flaws in our system. ASD was able to provide computers to all students that indicated they did not have one and they assisted families in gaining access to internet. Using the Zoom option to provide synchronous lessons was positive progression, particularly after it was evident that asynchronous lessons were not very successful. What I think could have been done differently was to provide clear communication in a timely manner for opening and closing of schools. These decisions should be based on local guidelines and current transmission data. The plan to have kids returning to school changed too often. Parents and the community did not have a substantial guide regarding what metric the district was going to use to return kids to school. When it comes to decisions that involve student and staff safety, clear communication of expectations and values is imperative.
Our board demonstrated a lack of leadership during the pandemic, which negatively impacted our district, and its operations. ASD failed to implement a plan to respond to the pandemic in a timely manner this year. When they established a plan, they didn’t stick to it. Worse, they failed to keep students, parents and teachers and staff involved in the process, and waited until the last possible moment to decide and communicate deviations from the plan to the public. Now there is a push for reopening, which I absolutely believe is a priority, and some families are being left behind who prefer a distance learning environment. I would have stayed in constant conversations. I would have brought stakeholder groups to improve operations. I would have made a commitment to follow the science so we could return kids to school sooner, and keep them there longer. Finally, I would have focused on long-range planning so families could know what to expect and make arrangements accordingly.
There was never a win-win for students and families over the last year. Hindsight will always be the greatest teacher and there will be much we can learn from this experience. Today, I think we did the very best we could. The next chapter in this journey is incredibly important. We need to ensure that there are maximum opportunities for our kids to make up the lost learning and get the supports they need. If elected, I will advocate for all students to have equity in access and opportunities.
Read more Q&As with Anchorage School Board candidates: