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Shifting course, superintendent says Anchorage School District will likely begin year online-only due to rising virus numbers

Anchorage School District superintendent Dr. Deena Bishop listens to public testimony during a School Board work session on Tuesday, July 21, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

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The Anchorage School District will likely start with online-only classes when classes resume Aug. 20 because coronavirus case counts in the municipality are rising so rapidly, superintendent Deena Bishop said Tuesday.

That would be a change from what the district announced earlier this month. Previously, Bishop and other Anchorage School District officials announced a tentative plan to begin holding in-person classes in small groups two days a week in August, and soon after switch to in-person classes five days a week in September.

The district’s four-part plan for holding school during the coronavirus pandemic, which includes low-, medium-low-, medium-high- and high-risk scenarios for school operations, uses the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services’ data to determine the risk level it’s operating in, Bishop said. The low-risk scenario means students would attend in-person classes, the high-risk scenario means classes would be online only and the medium-risk scenarios mean a blend of online and in-person classes.

“If the trend continues, it would boost us to the high-risk,” Bishop said in an interview.

The district is hearing “emotional pleas” to open up for school five days a week and also to not hold any in-person classes at all, she said.

“You have to use the data that’s out there to make decisions rather than rely on emotions,” Bishop said.

Armando Soria testified in support of opening schools 5 days a week and extending the school resource officer (SRO) program during an ASD School Board work session on Tuesday, July 21, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

The metric the district and state are using to determine risk levels is the average daily new coronavirus case count over a 14-day period.

The municipality is now at a daily average of 27 cases, according to state data. That’s the highest end of the acceptable range for the district to allow any in-person classes.

A large group of teachers, including Anchorage Education Association president Corey Aist, have voiced concern over the health risks teachers would be taking if they return to classrooms while the virus continues to spread through the city.

“We all want to be in classrooms with the kids and we all want to do it safely,” Aist said in an interview Tuesday.

Teachers need the community’s help to stop the virus from spreading, he said. The association has released a public statement, noting that the district has already experienced instances of virus transmission from district employees who went to work.

“We can’t be told to go back to the school environment, unconditionally,” Aist said. “I’m not telling people what they should do, but it does seem like there’s some things we could do to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in our community for the safety of our student populations and to meet the expectation of going back to school.”

A sign posted near the entrance of Tudor Elementary School says ’See you next year ’ on July 21, 2020. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Parents have also expressed concerns, saying that they depend on public schools to educate and care for their children. Some worry their children will fall behind in learning, especially those who are already struggling or have a disability.

Many working parents have few options for child care, the statewide Parent Teacher Association president, April Eide, has said.

Bishop has said that the school district’s plan is meant to be “nimble and flexible,” and the district can adjust school operations to the health and safety concerns that Anchorage is experiencing at any given time.

Rapidly changing research and data on the virus will continue to inform the district’s plan throughout the coming school year, she said Tuesday.

“We have to go back to the experts — knowing that we continue to learn about this virus and about how it spreads and whom it affects the most and use that information to the best of our knowledge to plan for school,” Bishop said.

At the school board meeting Tuesday, community members gave two hours of testimony on the plans for the school year. More than 60 written testimonies were also submitted to the board.

Vicki McCall, a library teacher at Baxter Elementary who has been with the district for 25 years, said she is concerned about the health risks of holding any in-person school and is worried that students and teachers will die.

“Do you want the last page in the 2021 yearbook to be an ‘in memoriam’ page for all the students and teachers lost to COVID-19?” she said.

Dr. Taro Sataki, a family physician in Anchorage and a father, called into the meeting and said he will be signing his children up for the district’s virtual school program. He said COVID-19 can have serious effects on children and that studies have shown some children who get the virus later develop a serious multisystem inflammatory syndrome.

“How will the Anchorage School District respond should a child or multiple children become critically ill or die from COVID-19 or COVID-19-related complications?” he said. “In my opinion, patience in delaying school opening until the vaccine is available is the most reasonable decision.”

Before the meeting began, Renee Lajuett, mother of a second grader, stood outside the Education Building holding a sign to voice support for school five days a week.

“My kid needs to go to school. He needs to learn — he’s already falling behind,” she said.

An eighth grade boy also gave in-person testimony and spoke about his concern that he would lose access to his advanced classes and that it would disrupt the trajectory of his education.

A survey of Anchorage families has shown that about 72% of families would send their kids to in-person school if it is available, deputy superintendent Mark Stock said in an interview earlier this month.

So far, 400 families have signed up for the virtual-only school, although it’s early in registration, Bishop said during the interview.

At the board meeting, Bishop stressed that any decision to hold in-person school is based on data and the advice of medical and public health experts, including the state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink.

Bishop also said that the district’s plan has been created with the input of all types of community members through the school start task force. The plan was also vetted at Harvard University through their public education leadership program, she said.

Daily News photographer Bill Roth contributed to this report.

Renee Lajuett posted signs outside the Anchorage School District building on Tuesday, July 21, 2020, with her children Tanner, 7, and Xander, 3, showing their support for opening schools five days a week. (Bill Roth / ADN)

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