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Some Anchorage teachers raise concerns over district’s plans for in-person classes as virus cases multiply

Anchorage School District building on Wednesday, July 8, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Rising coronavirus case numbers in Alaska appear to be on a collision course with the start of the coming school year, creating a tough situation as school districts plan to reopen buildings and troubling some teachers who must return to in-person classes.

The Anchorage School District last week announced its plans to start school Aug. 20 by holding in-person classes two days a week for its students. But many in the school district are fearful that any return to in-person classes puts students, teachers, staff and families at too great a risk for contracting the virus.

“Right now I’m afraid,” said Laura Kimmel, a special education teacher at South High School. “I’m afraid for everyone and I feel like we’re jumping into a burning building.”

Katie Fowley, a math teacher at Gruening Middle School in Eagle River, sent a letter from more than 40 Anchorage teachers detailing questions and concerns with the district’s reopening plan to administrators, local leaders, public health officials and the governor.

Katie Fowley teaches math at Gruening Middle School in Eagle River. She is pictured during a fishing trip on the Russian River in June. (Photo provided by Katie Fowley)

“Many of us, especially those who are in the high-risk category, are feeling like disposable members of society by being ordered back to school in person while our local and state numbers continue to grow at an increasing rate,” Fowley wrote. “The students and educators of the Anchorage School District are not the public’s guinea pigs to simply try a plan and see what happens.”

Over the last two weeks, daily rising case numbers in Anchorage and across the state are the highest they’ve ever been, indicating that community transmission is widespread, said Thomas Hennessy, an infectious disease epidemiologist in Anchorage. Hennessy worked with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for 28 years and is currently helping the municipality with data analysis of the pandemic through his work at UAA.

“It looks like we’re losing the fight right now, and I’m really concerned that we’re heading into a period of accelerating growth,” he said. “It’s not just the cases that are occurring today -- it’s the idea that each of those people who’s infected could, on average, infect two other people and then we could get into a period of exponential growth, where the epidemic could spiral out of control.”

Right now, Anchorage and Alaska are at a “critical juncture,” Hennessy said.

University of Alaska Anchorage college of health infectious disease epidemiologist Tom Hennessy, lower right, speaks over teleconference during an Anchorage COVID-19 community briefing on Friday, July 17, 2020, at city hall. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Still, the pressure is on for schools to reopen.

The American Academy of Pediatrics released guidelines last month that advocate for districts to “start with the goal of having students physically present in school.” During extended time away from school, children will suffer serious consequences such as learning deficits, social isolation, abuse and suicide, the academy wrote.

Parents say they are counting on schools to open so they can get back to work.

The Trump administration is pushing schools nationwide to reopen fully. President Donald Trump said last week that he would withhold federal funding from schools that don’t fully reopen.

Dr. Bruce Chandler, disease control and prevention medical officer with the Anchorage Health Department, said Friday at a community briefing that there is widespread agreement that kids, if at all possible, need to be in school.

Getting through the coming fall will be “messy,” Chandler said. “We can anticipate that day by day, school by school there’ll be the need to make decisions on the fly,” he said.

Anchorage School District administrators say that their plan to reopen school buildings — with children attending for shorter days and in smaller groups on an alternating schedule — is meant to be both cautious and flexible, and is appropriate for the current virus transmission levels in the community.

The district’s four-part plan includes low-, medium-low-, medium-high- and high-risk scenarios, with high-risk moving the district to online-only school. The district currently plans to start at the medium-high risk level.

The Anchorage School District is using the state Department of Health and Social Services’ COVID-19 alert levels, along with some other considerations like absentee rates and the advice of public health officials, to determine what risk level it’s operating in, said district spokesman Alan Brown.

A range of the average number of new cases over a 14-day period determines the alert level. Right now, Anchorage is in an intermediate alert zone at an average of 21 new cases per day, according to state data.

If the city were experiencing an average of 28 cases or more a day, it could mean the district would move to online-only learning, Brown said.

But some educators say that holding in-person classes while community transmission is increasing is risky for everyone, and they are urging caution.

Corey Aist, president of the Anchorage Education Association, photographed at his home on Friday, July 17, 2020. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

“Our schools are really important elements in our communities. And the last thing we want is for those to be epicenters of contagion,” said Corey Aist, president of the Anchorage Education Association, the local teacher’s union.

Aist said that all teachers want to be back in classrooms with their students — but only if it’s a safe environment for everyone. He said he’s received 400 emails from teachers sharing their concerns over the last 10 days.

Teachers work in confined spaces with groups of students for long periods of time, he said.

“In terms of mitigating the spread of COVID-19, our classrooms are not much different than canneries, fishing vessels and cruise ships,” Aist said. “When a case of COVID-19 shows up, it spreads very quickly in those spaces.”

Deputy superintendent Mark Stock said that the district is doing its best to lessen any risks for faculty, staff and students by doing things like requiring masks, installing Plexiglas shields, reducing class sizes and increasing sanitation in school buildings.

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 July 9, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

“In this environment — across the world — there is no one who is eliminating risk,” Stock said. “What we are doing is mitigating risk and trying to create a very safe environment.”

Teachers and staff will make individual choices about whether they will work in that environment, he said. The district is offering virtual school to families who also aren’t ready to return to classrooms and some jobs for online-only teaching will be available, but those jobs are few, he said.

Ben Walker, a science teacher at Romig Middle School in Anchorage, said many community members are not wearing masks or following social distancing guidelines, and the virus is spreading. It puts the teachers and the public schools they depend on in a bad position, he said.

Local and federal governments also haven’t created alternative options for families that need child care so parents can go to work, he said.

“If you can’t have an economy because your public school isn’t running, then that’s a failure of the economy, and it’s a failure in government to support an economy until we can get a handle on this thing,” Walker said.

Ben Walker, a seventh grade science teacher at Romig Middle School, works with students after being named Alaska Teacher of the Year during a school assembly on Oct. 12, 2017. (Bill Roth / ADN archive)

Schools should’t rush to open buildings in August while community spread is increasing, he said. What kids might lose in learning will be nothing compared to what they’ll lose if their friends, classmates and family members contract COVID-19 and die, he said.

Epidemiologist Hennessy said that so far, research is showing that children aren’t big spreaders of the coronavirus, unlike their role in spreading diseases like influenza. Many schools in Europe and Asia have reopened with similar hygiene requirements and smaller class sizes, and they’ve been largely successful although a few have had outbreaks, he said.

Those schools’ experiences can inform schools here, but their countries had “good control” of the pandemic, he said. Because public health workers in Alaska can no longer track all cases due to increasing spread, Alaska is not at that same point, he said.

Alaska’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, has said that the virus’s impact on children is lower than on adults, and that the risks associated with kids vary with their age and the school environment.

“We’re really trying to make sure education happens. That activity happens. And that we are nimble and flexible to make sure that different kids who have different needs get their needs met no matter where they are in the state, no matter what COVID looks like,” Zink said during a briefing Thursday.

Still, in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District — where there have been an average of four new cases a day, according to state data — teachers are also afraid to return to classrooms, said teacher Jill Showman. The district isn’t requiring masks and plans to start school with in-person classes, she said.

It’s creating an impossible choice for some teachers, such as a pregnant colleague who has to weigh her personal health and the health of her family members with the need to go back to work, Showman said.

Walker, at Romig Middle School, said that although classes may be in person a few days a week, it will be nothing like the school days kids are looking forward to: no assemblies, singing and music performances, hands-on group projects or hugging friends.

“Kids want normal. We all want normal. I want normal,” Walker said. “But knowing that we can’t do normal, how can we be safe? Because we want, at the end of this, we want the most possible people alive.”

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