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Most Alaska students will go to school fewer than 5 days per week this fall, superintendents say

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Most of Alaska’s K-12 students will go to school fewer than five days per week under plans intended to limit the spread of the coronavirus, officials told state legislators on Thursday. In order to keep students apart amid social distancing guidelines, some schools will have students attend on alternate days, with online instruction the rest of the week.

Decisions on reopening are being made at a local level, said Michael Johnson, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, who compared the situation to the way local superintendents approve snow days.

Several of those superintendents told a hearing of the Alaska House’s education committee that they intend to operate this fall under a “blended” approach to education: Students will attend school in person for part of the week and take online classes during the rest of the week. Those officials cautioned that plans may change depending on how the coronavirus spreads.

Already, the Anchorage School District has said it will likely start the school year Aug. 20 with students attending classes online only. Other districts outlined details of their plans:

• The Ketchikan Gateway Borough School District, which has about 2,300 students, intends to operate Monday through Thursday, with Friday reserved for disinfecting schools and remote activities.

• In the Northwest Arctic Borough, where about 2,000 students attend classes, kids will be at school two days a week and at home three days a week.

• In the state capital, the Juneau School District plans to operate elementary schools on half-day schedules four days per week, with Wednesday reserved for cleaning and disinfecting. Middle and high school students will be divided into two groups: One group will attend Monday and Thursday, the other will attend Tuesday and Friday. School starts Aug. 24.

• The rural Yukon-Koyukuk School District northwest of Fairbanks will have temperature and symptom checks at the doors of its schools, and teachers are being quarantined in Fairbanks for two weeks before flying out to remote villages. Some communities have requested — and are being granted — longer quarantines, up to four weeks in some places.

The Fairbanks and Mat-Su school districts did not participate in Thursday’s meeting but have outlined their tentative plans to parents:

In Fairbanks, schools are set to begin Aug. 20 with desks spaced six feet apart, regular cleaning and mandatory masks. Elementary schools would conduct classes five days per week, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Middle and high schools would split students into two groups. Those groups would alternate: Each group would spend three days in the classroom one week, then two days the next week. Students could attend in person, electronically or do homeschooling.

In the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, students will attend in person but have the option to study from home. The district is not currently planning a week-on, week-off “blended” system, and it is also not requiring masks or temperature checks.

Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, said that if schools cannot maintain social distancing, “we would expect increasing transmission” of the coronavirus.

But that’s only in places where the virus is already circulating in a community. Though cases are being reported in Fort Yukon and some other rural communities, many have remained isolated from COVID-19.

In those places, reopening schools doesn’t significantly increase the risk of catching the virus.

“Community transmission rate is biggest factor whether reopening schools increases risk,” she said.

With each school operating under different circumstances, Johnson said he expects districts and individual schools to make their own judgments about opening. Johnson used to be superintendent of the Copper River School District and compared the situation to the way he used to monitor snowstorms and cold weather to determine whether schools should stay open.

“Every day of the coming school year is probably going to be a snow day,” he said.

While Johnson’s department has been advising school districts on policies, it can’t mandate them.

“The department doesn’t have the authority to approve or disprove plans … that’s for local school boards,” he said.

The plans outlined Thursday call for stricter measures if coronavirus case counts rise, but Kerry Boyd, superintendent of the Yukon-Koyukuk district, said it’s been difficult to know when to implement those decisions.

There’s been one confirmed COVID-19 case in her district, but she doesn’t know where it is. In addition, it’s taking six to 10 days to return test results. If a student, teacher or support staff member is infected, it might take time for a community to know and take action.

In response to a question from Rep. DeLena Johnson, R-Palmer, Zink acknowledged the problem.

“You can have a large community outbreak that would take a while to show,” she said.

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