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Most Anchorage students likely won’t be back in classrooms until next quarter. Here’s where things stand.

Empty chairs and tables line a Northwood Elementary School classroom in Anchorage on Aug. 25, 2020. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

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The Anchorage School District is rethinking how to get kids back into classrooms, but families should not expect students to return to school buildings this quarter.

In an interview Wednesday, Superintendent Deena Bishop said that the district’s plans for returning students to school buildings are currently being “revised and adapted" based on information and experiences from other school districts in the U.S. and other countries that have reopened schools during the pandemic.

“We’re just again rethinking our resources to better meet the needs during the pandemic,” Bishop said.

Anchorage public school buildings have been closed to in-person classes since March due to the coronavirus pandemic and have yet to reopen.

So when, and how, will students in Anchorage finally go back? Here’s what we know so far.

The school district will make an announcement, likely by Sept. 15, that will provide information about what will happen after the first quarter ends, Bishop said Wednesday.

Some students may return to in-person school next quarter, which begins Oct. 19, she said. That’s because the number of coronavirus cases in the municipality has been slowly trending down since July, she said.

“I think that short of these enormous numbers (of cases) coming in again, that we could look to start school for our youngest students,” Bishop said.

The district is focusing on getting its youngest students back in classrooms first because they are at a critical point in their developmental learning, which requires face-to-face social interactions, Bishop said.

That first wave of students to return to classrooms could be pre-kindergarten through the sixth grade, although that is still being discussed and fewer grades may be allowed back, according to district spokeswoman Lisa Miller.

But it’s too soon to tell exactly what will be safe, Bishop said. The district is watching the 14-day average of daily case numbers to evaluate the spread of the virus in Anchorage. That number sits at about 39 new cases per day — too high for it to move to a lower risk level now, she said.

Meanwhile, the district’s School Start Task Force, a group made up of administrators and educators from different programs and schools in the district, is reevaluating the plans it had previously made for school operations during the pandemic.

Its original plan includes different operations under four coronavirus risk-level scenarios: low, medium-low, medium-high and high risk. It is currently operating in a high-risk scenario with all classes held online only.

But the task force had planned that once that risk level dropped into the medium-high risk scenario, students would be split into small cohorts and attend schools on alternating days to reduce the number of kids in school buildings at one time.

Now, the task force is considering changing its plans for that scenario. It’s considering three or four ideas for getting kids back to class, Bishop said.

While small cohorts do work to reduce the risk of virus spread, using alternating schedules is “very negatively impactful to families, and especially families that have multiple children,” Bishop said.

“The feedback from other places that have done that was that it was not a positive experience,” she said. “It is almost easier to stay out (of school) the whole time than to have to juggle that.”

Special education students who are in “self-contained" classrooms, meaning they get all their academic instruction from a special education teacher, will also be among the first to return to school buildings, Bishop said.

That includes some middle school and high school students in special education, she said.

The task force is also looking at ways to expand that offering for other students who are finding online learning especially difficult and may need in-person tutoring, she said. Some teachers have requested that small groups be allowed in buildings for instruction.

The task force is considering ways to allow appointment-based meetings of small groups of students with teachers, even while in a high-risk scenario, Bishop said.

Bishop said that because the district’s athletics programs are having success using coronavirus safety precautions with coaches and athletes, the task force is developing a protocol for teachers to offer in-person tutoring while the school district’s risk level is still high.

For now, the district is also looking at smaller steps to get younger students back to learning in person before the second quarter, Bishop said.

It is rolling out a pilot in-person reading program in a few schools that parents will opt into. The program, which is set to begin Sept. 28, would provide reading help in the afternoons for children in lower grades, Bishop said.

“I wish there was a set recipe, but there isn’t,” Bishop said. “We’re the pioneers of COVID learning.”

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