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Anchorage School District will likely start with in-person classes just 2 days a week but soon change to 5 days

ASD Superintendent Deena Bishop speaks during an overview of the school start plan on Thursday. (Bill Roth / ADN)

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The Anchorage School District on Thursday announced that it plans to begin holding in-person classes just two days a week during the first 2 1/2 weeks of school this fall. But the district will soon move to hold in-person classes five days a week, according to the district’s plan.

Starting on the first day of school, Aug. 20, students will be separated into two smaller groups, or cohorts, that will attend on opposite days of the week, deputy superintendent Mark Stock said during a Thursday community briefing.

In September, the district likely will switch to a medium-low risk level, with students in school five days a week but for just 5 1/2 hours a day, a departure from the usual 6 1/2-hour school day, according to the district’s plan presented Thursday.

Superintendent Deena Bishop said it is a “slow roll in” of the district’s plan, a way to “assess the roadblocks” and allow students and staff the time to get used to new routines and a new way of holding school.

By starting school a different way, there will be some problems, she said. “Our plan is simply to address those prior to having all students in school,” she said.

The district’s announcement comes as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Alaska and across the nation and schools nationwide are grappling with how to teach students safely in the coming academic year.

The Trump administration has added pressure to that struggle, as top officials, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, stress the urgency of providing full-time, in-person school. President Donald Trump said Wednesday that he would withhold federal funding from schools that don’t fully reopen.

For months, a task force has been working on Anchorage School District’s four-part plan that includes low-, medium-low-, medium-high- and high-risk operations scenarios, Bishop said.

While the low-risk scenario means kids would be back in school full time, both medium-risk scenarios include shorter days and a “blended learning model” that incorporates in-person and online school. The high-risk scenario means the district would move to online-only instruction.

Bishop said during the briefing that the plan focuses on “rigorous health and safety protocols.”

“We are not all experiencing the crisis the same,” she said of the coronavirus pandemic. Students, teachers, staff and their families are all at different risks of the virus, she said. Many students and staff are ready to get back into classrooms, she said. Others are wary.

“Our goal was to develop a plan that can mitigate those risks and provide parents options,” Stock said. “We recognize that every plan isn’t perfect for every family.”

The district is also providing a virtual school program, which means that parents can register their child with their neighborhood school and enable those students to participate in online classes with support from an Anchorage School District teacher.

From left, ASD chief operating officer Tom Roth, deputy superintendent Mark Stock and Superintendent Deena Bishop listen to ASD school board president Elisa Vakalis speak during an overview of the school start plan on Thursday, July 9, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Even while operating five days a week, elementary students will still be separated into groups and stay only within that group with their teacher for the school day, Bishop said. This should help keep students from mixing and possibly spreading the virus between classrooms, and it allows the district keep track of who contacts who, helping with virus tracing, she said.

High school students will be put into groups as well and will operate under a quarter instead of a semester system, she said.

“One of the biggest feedback pieces that we received from our students and their parents was that navigating six courses — if we had to go online again, to a ‘blended model’ — was very, very difficult to keep up,” she said.

This way, students will take just a few classes at a time instead of six or seven.

All grades will use the same online platform, called Canvas. During spring, the district used a variety of platforms for distance education and that created unnecessary complications for families, Bishop said.

Whether administrators decide that kids should go back to online-only classes will depend on data from state health officials, Bishop said. That data includes includes the number of coronavirus cases over a 14-day period within a community.

Tom Roth, chief operating officer for the district, said decisions to change risk levels will also be based on geographic location. Some schools could close while others remained open, and some could close for just 24 hours or for longer periods of time.

For the entire district to move into the high-risk level would mean that cases across the municipality were widespread, he said.

Anchorage schools are implementing a host of mitigation efforts to prevent the virus spread, he said.

Schools will stick to the recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Pediatric Association, and maintain social distancing between staff and students “whenever feasible,” he said.

The district will also introduce Plexiglas shields, similar to those now seen in grocery stores, in some areas of school buildings, he said.

Hand washing and hand sanitizing will happen on a regular schedule, and school buildings and buses will be regularly disinfected and cleaned, he said.

Each classroom will have a kit that includes a spray bottle of sanitizing solution and hand sanitizer. There will be markings and signage throughout schools to help manage the movement of people through areas to help with social distancing, Roth said.

Anyone who enters a school building will be required to wear personal protective equipment such as a face mask or shield, Bishop said. It is necessary to help protect vulnerable staff and teachers who may have higher risk factors.

“Our community wants school back and our communities need to rally around this one issue to support face masks as a personal courtesy to those that are coming to work every day and working with children,” Bishop said.

Right now the district is stocking up on its personal protective equipment — it has about 310,000 adult-sized masks on hand, and the district has ordered 140,000 child-sized disposable masks and about 1,300 face shields for special needs students, Roth said.

Personal protective equipment is in high demand nationwide, Roth said, and there’s not yet a way to predict exactly how much it will need or have on hand to provide for schoolchildren.

April Eide, an Anchorage mother of two and president of the statewide Parent Teacher Association, said she was happy that the district finally announced a plan and that kids will go to school in-person, but there are a lot of unanswered questions, she said.

She’s concerned about things like personal protective equipment — whether schools will be able to acquire enough and whether young kids will actually wear the masks.

Many working families rely on public school and aren’t prepared to pay for more child care, and Eide worries that kids who are in day care centers will fall behind in learning, she said.

“How are those kids going to be getting the help that they need when they’re not in school?” she said. “You can’t add that to the child care facilities.”

Bishop said that while administrators recognize that not immediately returning to full-time school may be stressful for working families and parents struggling to find child care, it’s necessary to ease into the year to prepare for any “hiccups” that may occur.

“We’ve certainly had our fair share of school closures in the last two years, and so we’re asking for the courtesy to be able to deliberately address the safety and routines that need to be established in schools to ensure the safety of your children and the staff,” Bishop said.

“We have one goal in mind: How do we safely provide an excellent education for every child, every day?” Bishop said.

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