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Anchorage School District will begin year with online-only classes

A sign showing support for Anchorage School District employees hangs on a fence on the corner of West 15th Avenue and C Street outside Central Middle School of Science in Anchorage on July 21. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

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The Anchorage School District announced Friday that the coming school year will not begin with in-person classes and will instead begin with online-only learning.

Rising coronavirus case numbers in Anchorage have propelled the district into a “high-risk scenario” for school operations, Superintendent Deena Bishop said Friday.

The district is using the average daily new coronavirus case count in the municipality over a 14-day period to assess that risk. On Friday, that jumped to an average of 30 new cases a day, Bishop said in a districtwide email.

The announcement comes almost a month before the start of the school year on Aug. 20.

“I felt it was important to make a decision now to provide the maximum amount of time for families, teachers, and staff to plan and make the many necessary arrangements for starting school,” Bishop wrote. “ASD will continue to monitor the community health risk on a daily basis and will make another risk-level determination the week prior to Labor Day.”

The decision was made with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services and the Municipality of Anchorage, using the district’s “risk level decision matrix,” Bishop wrote.

It’s a reversal from what the district initially announced early this month. Previously, Bishop and other Anchorage School District officials said that schools would hold 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. But at that time, the average daily case count was lower.

Bishop signaled earlier this week that classes might be online-only when the school year begins.

“Our goal is to get back to in-person school as soon as possible — when it is safe to do so for our students and staff,” Bishop wrote in Friday’s email. “As we continue to live through this pandemic together, it is critical the ASD community does its collective part to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”

On Wednesday, Mayor Ethan Berkowitz issued a mandate with new capacity restrictions for restaurants, bars and other businesses.

“At this time, no gathering is safe, especially an indoor gathering,” said Dr. Bruce Chandler, medical officer for disease prevention and control with the Anchorage Health Department, during a community briefing Friday.

When the school year begins, online learning will take place five days a week. As long as the city does not go back into a “hunker-down” phase, teachers and staff will work from school buildings, Bishop said at the community briefing.

Schools will reach out to families with more information and provide the “necessary tools,” Bishop said. They will also set up meetings for families with each student’s teacher.

The school board has approved the purchase of enough devices so that every child in grades three through 12 has a school-issued Chromebook laptop, Bishop said. It will also spend money to support Wi-Fi access for families, Bishop said Friday.

Online programs for the coming year will be different from the online classes rolled out during the spring shutdown, she said.

“There are 400 teachers presently working on those courses and classes so that it will be a robust e-learning program whether we’re in school or not,” she said.

Jennifer Knutson, senior director of teaching and learning at the district, said in an interview earlier this month that not all of the online schoolwork done during a high-risk scenario means that children work and learn on their own time. Teachers will also hold distance learning sessions that include student-teacher interactions and instruction, she said.

The district’s four-part plan for school during the coronavirus pandemic includes low-, medium-low-, medium-high- and high-risk scenarios for school operations. All scenarios except low risk incorporate some amount of online learning, with a “blended” or “hybrid” approach for the medium-risk levels.

Whether the district will switch to a lower-risk scenario in September depends on whether coronavirus case numbers decrease over the next month and by how much, Bishop said.

The district is evaluating case counts daily but will not switch in and out of different risk levels depending on those daily numbers, Bishop said. Instead, it will make announcements every two weeks to give parents and families time to adjust and prepare, she said.

Bishop also said that because research is showing that young children are not big carriers or spreaders of the coronavirus, it may be possible to adjust the district’s plan and get the youngest students back into schools first.

To help get kids back in school, community members need to follow state and city health guidelines such as wearing face coverings, practicing social distancing and good hygiene, Bishop said.

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