The Anchorage School District and school districts across the state are piecing together how to begin classes again next month, even as the number of COVID-19 cases in Alaska rises.
With about six weeks until school begins Aug. 20, the Anchorage School District hasn’t finalized its plans. While much remains uncertain, it’s unlikely that Anchorage schools will open for full-time school in classrooms right away.
“We intend to start cautious and help our students learn the safety protocols,” said Mark Stock, deputy superintendent.
All school districts are using the state’s Smart Start 2020 framework to create contingency plans for operating in low-, medium- and high-risk environments.
The framework lays out what those risk levels mean, but it is up to the school districts themselves — in consultation with local and state health authorities — to decide what risk level to operate in and how to operate safely, Anchorage School District spokesman Alan Brown said.
Also, those risk levels could change at any time, depending upon the situation with the virus. No one is yet sure what risk level each district will begin the school year in — and that makes it difficult to plan, said Jennifer Knutson, Anchorage School District’s senior director of professional learning.
Right now, the district is planning for four ways of conducting school:
1. Low risk: Students would go to school as usual, but there would be some changes, including social distancing in classrooms and hallways and strict cleaning protocols.
2. Medium-low risk: Students would attend just four days a week for a five-hour day, reduced from the normal 6 1/2 hours.
3. Medium-high risk: Students will be placed into smaller groups and attend school with that group only two days a week. The other days of the week, students would do schoolwork online, Stock said.
4. High risk: No students would return to classrooms, and the entire district would be moved to online-only learning.
Stock said it’s likely that the district will start with students attending in-person school part time, to help get them used to a combination of teacher instruction and online schoolwork, and to help prepare in case the district has to move to a high-risk environment.
Plans are in a drafting phase and are not yet firm, he said, but the administration will present a plan to the school board on July 21. If it approves that plan, the board will send it to the state Department of Education and Early Development.
“We have to be nimble and flexible, and we have to be ready for everything that happens, and we are and we will be,” Stock said.
The district may switch from a semester-based school year to a quarter-based school year, which will allow students to focus on just a few classes at a time instead of seven. That should help make blended learning more manageable, Knutson said.
Abiding by strict social distancing does present some challenges in classrooms and in transporting students to and from school, said Tom Roth, the district’s chief operating officer.
School bus capacities for middle and high schools will be reduced by 50% to hold one student per seat. If all kids are attending in-person school, it may mean the buses that pick up numerous elementary-age kids will have to make multiple sweeps of the same areas.
To help all students have equal access to learning, the district is also planning to provide all students in grades three and above with a device for online schoolwork, Stock said.
A district survey that so far has reached the families of more than 20,000 students has shown that about 72% of them are ready to return to in-person schooling, Stock said.
About 17% may not be ready, he said. Those families will have the option of attending online school with the instruction of a school district teacher and remain enrolled in their neighborhood school, Stock said.
Some parents have raised concerns that if kids aren’t all in school for in-person classes, there will be equity issues in learning regardless.
Sarah Terranova is president of the Parent Teacher Association at Chester Valley Elementary, a Title I school, meaning it has a high number of kids from low-income families. She worries for parents who are working or struggling economically and don’t have the ability to stay home to monitor online learning and things like Zoom meetings.
“They shouldn’t have to make that choice between a child’s education and putting food on the table,” Terranova said.
She said that families need school to be in-person and that a part-time schedule will be disruptive for many. She thinks that many lower-income kids will be left behind.
For Terranova, a mother of three whose 10-year-old son is on the autism spectrum, helping her two elementary-age boys learn online in the spring was difficult. Her 10-year-old needs a schedule and regular structure to keep him feeling accomplished and working toward his goals, she said. He also needs daily interactions with other children.
“It’s taken a lot of therapy and a lot of coaching and a lot of conversations and working with him to learn how to play with other kids, not just next to them,” she said. “So, for him to not have that social interaction with kids his own age — if it continues for long-term — it could be detrimental to all the progress he’s made.”
Equity in learning is a top priority for the district, Knutson said. It will take time in the first few weeks of school to assess whatever learning gaps may have occurred over the last six months to help tailor teaching and support to each student.
Plans for other Alaska school districts vary widely, according to Lisa Parady, executive director of the Alaska Council of School Administrators, because conditions like school size and internet access vary so greatly.
For example, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District announced that it will return students to brick-and-mortar schools, but it also has contingency plans in place for students to be split into groups and alternate in-person school with online learning. It is also planning for an online-only scenario if the risk becomes extremely high.
Similar to Anchorage, the Juneau School District will not start school at full capacity. It cannot run at full capacity and abide by the social distancing standards set out by health experts, according to its FAQ page.
But there is growing federal pressure for school districts to bring kids back in to traditional classrooms full time.
Education Secretary Betsy Devos on Tuesday said that schools “must fully reopen and fully operate this school year.” And on Wednesday, President Donald Trump said he might withhold federal funding from schools that don’t fully reopen in fall.
In response to a question about Devos’ statement, Rochelle Lindley, Alaska Department of Education and Early Development spokeswoman, said “DEED interprets ‘fully operational’ to mean that teachers are teaching and students are learning. The Alaska Smart Start 2020 framework is designed to for schools to be ‘fully operational’ in a format that is best for students, families, and the community.”
During a Tuesday briefing, Gov. Mike Dunleavy said that Alaska is unique from other states for multiple reasons, including its many isolated communities, and that the state had not heard from the president about “any type of pressure or direction in terms of opening schools.”
The state is working on plans for “any type of contingency,” including a large outbreak and localized outbreaks, he said.
Alaska’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, said at a briefing Wednesday that research is showing less viral transmission in younger children. That’s different from the situation with flu and other diseases, she said, where children are “natural spreaders.”
It appears children don’t get infected as frequently as adults “and we don’t know why,” said Dr. Joe McLaughlin, the state epidemiologist. It’s possible the difference is that children have fewer virus-binding receptors within cells lining their respiratory tracts, McLaughlin said, adding that researchers are still looking at that link.
Dunleavy said Tuesday that virus research is evolving daily, so it’s important to plan for all scenarios. The goal is to get kids and teachers back in classrooms, he said.
“Kids are going to have to be educated,” Dunleavy said.
At the very least — though it’s not ideal — that means distance learning, he said.
“The question is what twists and turns will this disease take in the next couple weeks, next month or two,” he said.
Anchorage Daily News reporter Zaz Hollander contributed.
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