The Anchorage School District announced a plan on Wednesday to gradually phase its students back in to school buildings, beginning with its elementary and high-needs students.
Anchorage schools closed in March as the coronavirus pandemic shut down much of Alaska. Schools have remained closed since, although online classes resumed at the beginning of the school year on Aug. 20.
“We are confident that while we cannot eliminate the virus, we can effectively mitigate its spread using the most up-to-date information and best practices from the medical and science experts from around the world,” the district wrote.
In-person classes will resume on Oct. 19 for pre-kindergarten through sixth grade, and all students will attend school five days a week for 5 1/2 hours each day, according to a district-wide message. Students in self-contained special education programs will also return to school buildings Oct. 19.
The district said in-person classes for first-year middle school students will begin Nov. 12-13, for grades six or seven, depending on the school. All other middle school students will begin classes on Nov. 16, according to the email.
Special and alternative schools with both middle and high school students will also resume Nov. 16
The four-week time span between the elementary and middle school start dates is intended to allow time to adjust “elementary school logistics and safety protocols,” and “will only occur if safety practices and viral conditions permit,” the district wrote.
The district also plans to bring high school students back to classes too, but not until Jan. 4, 2021, at the beginning of the second semester. High school students will also attend school five days a week for 5 1/2 hours a day.
Superintendent Deena Bishop in an interview Wednesday said that the decision to go back to school buildings was based on changing science and research around COVID-19, and not the “outside pressure of parents or inside pressure.”
Young students are missing out on fundamental building blocks of learning, Bishop said.
“The mission is educating all students for success. That’s the core of what we do. That’s what we’re about. And the situation now is not doing that,” Bishop said, referring to online learning.
Case counts in Anchorage have steadily dropped since spiking in July, the district said in its message.
It has revised its original school start plan, which included four phases for operations in low-, medium-low-, medium-high- and high-risk environments. The medium-risk phases included grouping students in small cohorts that would attend school on alternating days of the week.
Instead, it will operate in one medium-risk phase that brings all students back to classrooms together, as it phases in students at each school level. It is now "in the process of balancing” class sizes to keep student class counts low, according to the message.
Bishop said an ideal class size is under 20 students for elementary school.
The district has been using guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and coronavirus data from the Department of Health and Social Services to help evaluate its risk level. It had focused on the 14-day rolling average of new coronavirus cases in the municipality to determine the risk level.
That average is currently 41 new cases a day, according to state data, higher than the 28-cases-per-day average previously required for Anchorage to be at a medium-risk level.
But the district is also now taking into account new guidance from the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics that supports the return of in-person classes “if the health and mitigation conditions permit.”
Those institutions also suggest that the case count average should not be the only determining factor, the district said. That data “remains a key piece of information” in determining whether school should be held in person or online, it said.
“Rather, this data point is a start for a holistic decision-making process which must consider a host of other factors that assist in understanding the nature of the community spread,” the district wrote.
The CDC’s new guidance includes chart of risk-level indicators that utilizes several more metrics, including hospital capacity and contact tracing ability. Bishop said that the district has its own contact tracing team that will work with municipal public health.
Bishop said that bringing elementary students back first allows the district time to pinpoint strategies that work, gives students time to learn new ways of being in school like wearing masks and not eating in lunchrooms. It is also safer because, unlike middle or high school students, elementary students will stay in the same class with the same teacher for the duration of the school day, she said.
Many families are in different situations with varying levels of need and risk when it comes to the virus, and that is why it is important to slowly phase in the different school levels back to in-person classes, she said.
The district’s plan could be revised as the COVID-19 situation changes in the municipality and as schools learn more about what works in the fight against the virus, Bishop said.
Still, many teachers fear that the return to classrooms is coming too soon, said Anchorage Education Association president Corey Aist.
The teachers' association stands by the position it took in July, he said.
“With the pandemic and its current situation, we think online learning is the safest for all involved — students, families and staff," he said.
Aist said teachers worked hard to launch their online learning classrooms.
“We’re just starting to get into a routine every week and pulling those environments out from under us at this time may be a little bit premature,” he said.
Some teachers fear they will go back to the classroom just to have to return to to online-only if the pandemic worsens this winter during the approaching flu season, Aist said.
Bishop said that a return to online learning would be triggered if there was mass spread of the virus in schools and the community.
“We all want to be in the classroom with our students,” Aist said. “We just want to make sure that it can be done safely. And I’m not convinced.”
Many details about how schools will operate safely still need to be hashed out, he said.
Bishop said the district is allowing itself and families time to plan and prepare by making the announcement ahead of time. In two weeks, the district will again update families on the COVID-19 situation, but for now it is sticking to its plan, she said.
“The plan is the plan. And that’s how we’re going to move forward. But there isn’t any entity, any organization, from our hospitals to the highest medical professionals, that have a plan that is absolutely bulletproof,” Bishop said. “It’s dynamic, and as new information comes about, we’ll be responding to it.”
Read the school district’s announcement: