A majority of teachers in the Anchorage School District are apprehensive about returning to in-person school, and some may refuse to return to classrooms, according to a recent survey from the teachers union for the Anchorage School District.
The Anchorage Education Association, which has about 3,200 members, conducted a survey about teachers' concerns with school during the COVID-19 pandemic. It received 2,161 responses. The results were released this week and presented to the school board Tuesday by its president, Corey Aist.
Most Anchorage teachers — about 80% — are afraid to return to classes, and many also do not believe the district is properly prepared to mitigate COVID-19 risks, according to the survey.
Of the educators surveyed who did not want to go back to school, nearly 25% indicated they were “absolutely” uncomfortable with going back.
The school district last week announced a tentative plan to reopen its classrooms in phases, starting with elementary schools on Oct. 19. Anchorage schools closed in March when the coronavirus pandemic shut down much of Alaska. Schools have been closed to in-person classes since, although online classes resumed at the beginning of the school year on Aug. 20.
Aist at the board meeting called it an “unprecedented survey” based on the overwhelming number of responses.
Just over 74% said that they do not feel like there are adequate safeguards for a return to in-person schooling.
Almost 30% of the educators who took the survey said that either they or a close family member is at a high risk and so they do not feel safe returning to classrooms. Another 8% — nearly 200 — said they would take some form of leave, quit or retire rather than return to schools.
“To maintain their safety, teacher resignations are at an unprecedented level and will continue to rise if the time table is implemented,” Aist wrote in a letter to the school board. “Members have stated they will take COVID-19 leave or their own leave. ADA requests are being denied at a high rate. I am not confident you will have staff to take care of the students if this time table is implemented."
The district shifted course last week when it announced its new plan, which would bring back elementary and self-contained special education programs first, middle school students in November and high school students in January.
Teachers previously spoke out about their concerns to the school board this summer, when the district was formulating its original plan.
The new plan to return students to classrooms elicited over an hour of testimony at the Tuesday school board meeting. Educators expressed frustrations with the plan, a lack of information from the district and their fears about the possible consequences of returning to in-person school.
Some educators cited a lack of cleaning supplies in classrooms, poor air flow and ventilation in school buildings and concern over a new 3-feet social distancing standard instead of the previous 6 feet or more.
Misty Nelson, an educator at Lake Otis Elementary School, said that many of the staff in her school are in high-risk situations. One is battling cancer, two are cancer survivors, another is pregnant, one has a newborn and others are caring for elderly family members or are at a high-risk age themselves, she said.
She also questioned the logistics of bringing young kids back.
“What happens when a kid has a high fever, or runny nose, and their transportation has already left?" Nelson said. "Where do all the kiddos go when several are showing up with symptoms of being sick?”
She also said that most class sizes are currently too big to properly implement social distancing in classrooms.
Superintendent Deena Bishop at the meeting said the district is currently working on lowering class sizes. It will seek out many possible options to keep elementary classes in small cohorts and utilize spaces for classes such as lunchrooms, libraries and even nearby churches, she said.
Educators who spoke also expressed concerns about political pressure and leadership changes altering the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that the district is using.
But Bishop said that the new plan takes into account a host of new factors that are important to evaluating the risks of the community and the negative effects on kids of not having in-person school.
“We’re not doing this randomly. This isn’t political. This is all about doing what’s best for our kids,” board member Starr Marsett said during the meeting.
The district is using a new risk-level evaluation tool that includes several more factors to help it decide when and how to return students to classrooms. It is also using information from the American Academy of Pediatrics and data from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services to evaluate risk.
Early evidence indicates that nationally, rates of COVID-19 infection in schools have remained lower than in surrounding communities, and experts say opening schools may not be as risky as feared.
Sarah Price, a junior at Eagle River High School, said in testimony that the school district should send high school students back as soon as possible.
School now is “a glorified version of homework” and students are suffering serious mental health consequences, she said. It has also increased the likelihood of students suffering abuse at home without the safe haven that schools usually provide, she said.
“If ASD does not send high school students back until next year, each member on this board is acknowledging and accepting the problem, danger you are putting your students in, are openly stealing our education, and are failing your own mission statement,” Price said.
Aist has said that teachers do want to go back to in-person school, but not until it is safe for everyone.