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Anchorage School District will delay the start of in-person classes

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The Anchorage School District announced Thursday that it will delay the start of in-person classes, citing widespread community transmission of COVID-19.

The district did not provide a new date for returning students to classrooms in its announcement.

“Anchorage has recently reached an all-time high of cases and community spread, causing the need to postpone the in-school option for now,” Superintendent Deena Bishop said in a districtwide email announcing the delay.

The district had previously released a new school start plan in September that included sending elementary school students and high-needs special education students back to classrooms on Oct. 19, bringing middle school students back in November and high school students back in January.

“... While we do not have a set date for bringing students back into buildings at this time, ASD staff will continue to actively plan for school reentry and will be prepared when community conditions allow,” Bishop said in the email.

A number of small programs that are currently operating in school buildings will continue, including the reading tutor program, she said. Bishop will also look for ways to offer more small part-time, in-school programs for different student needs, she said.

The district on Thursday also announced the 14-day suspension of high school volleyball, canceled the Cook Inlet Conference tennis championships and called off Friday’s varsity football game between Dimond High and Service High School, in the wake of multiple quarantines affecting teams and student-athletes.

As of last Friday, the district had recorded 11 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in September, with six cases among staff and five among students. The district said it was unable to immediately respond to a request for updated numbers, but a spokeswoman said new numbers would be available Friday.

Bishop said that over the last four weeks, the district has closely monitored the community spread of the virus in Anchorage as it planned coronavirus mitigation strategies and trained for in-person classes.

“I remain confident that our educators, given the knowledge and tools needed to operate, can effectively teach in their classrooms, even with the presence of COVID-19 in our community,” Bishop said in the email.

Still, for now, the risk of holding school in classrooms is too high, Bishop said during a virtual town hall meeting held Wednesday.

District officials are monitoring eight different risk level indicators that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released in September as tools schools can use to evaluate community spread of COVID-19 and the risk of opening classrooms.

One of the indicators looks at how much the rate of new cases per 100,000 people has changed over the last seven-day period, showing a trend in community transmission. In Anchorage, that has risen 52% from the previous seven days, indicating rising spread of the virus, according to the district’s data.

The district is continuing to monitor risk indicators and will “consult closely with State and Municipal leaders and health officials in deciding when it is safe to bring students back into schools," Bishop said in the email.

The district’s “primary goal” is to get students back into classrooms, she said. The online options are valuable and helpful, but do not provide the same quality, services and equity of access that students need, she said.

“Not having students in school buildings creates a significant disruption among students and families at all levels, particularly in our young children and special needs populations,” Bishop said in the email. “The disparity we see in our learning outcomes is growing, and the concern for our students' mental health continues to increase.”

Bishop said she will make another announcement on Oct. 15.

“Please help your community get schools open by practicing the 'Three W’s’ urged by health care experts: Wear masks in public, Wash your hands, and Watch your distance by practicing social distancing,” she said.

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