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Anchorage schools superintendent makes emotional plea for reopening classrooms despite virus risks

Anchorage School District superintendent Dr. Deena Bishop listens to public testimony during a School Board work session on Tuesday, July 21, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

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Frustration and sadness over the closure of Anchorage schools during the pandemic punctuated a school board meeting this week, as the district superintendent delivered a message that the current distance-learning system is failing students.

Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop told the School Board on Tuesday that they can’t wait a year to get kids back into classrooms — even though she does not anticipate that the high risks of coronavirus spread will abate in the city.

“The mission of our school district is to prepare our students for success,” she said. “We are not meeting that mission.”

Bishop’s statement, at times emotional, marks a shift since the announcement last week that postponed the planned opening of in-person classes in October due to rising coronavirus infection numbers in Anchorage and rapid community spread. Anchorage schools have been closed for in-person classes since March.

“This is passion in my voice. It is not a sign of weakness in making a decision. I’m letting you know, COVID is killing our children in more ways than one. And we need to stand for children today," Bishop said.

The district in September released a new school start plan that would send elementary school students and high-needs special education students back to classrooms on Oct. 19, and bring middle school students back in November and high school students in January. But Bishop changed course Thursday when she announced the postponement.

She did not say Tuesday when students might return to schools. Bishop said Anchorage’s risk of coronavirus spread will likely not fall from high to medium “at least for a year, I would suspect.”

“We cannot wait a year to educate our children in buildings,” she said.

Bishop has said she will give updates on the school start plan and the district’s coronavirus risk levels on the 1st and 15th of each month and is set to give an update next week.

During an interview Wednesday, Bishop said she is making decisions on opening schools in concert with state health officials and epidemiology experts. She said that if it is possible, she will provide information in an update next week on when kids might get back into schools.

Bishop also said that she is deeply worried for the mental health and safety of students, and said that her biggest concern for students right now is “self-harm." She said she could not provide specifics due to privacy laws.

Teachers and staff have been “working tirelessly” to try to support and educate the roughly 45,000 students in the district, but distance learning is not enough, she said.

“It’s not for a lack of trying that kids are still suffering. It’s just the way it is,” Bishop said during the interview. “And in some children’s lives, the only joy they have in their life is entering those school buildings. We need to remember that.”

At the meeting Tuesday, school board member Starr Marsett voiced support for Bishop and a plan to get kids back into schools as soon as possible, saying their mental health, education and physical health are suffering.

“I see grades just plummeting," Marsett said. "It’s not that I want to put our kids in an unsafe environment because I don’t think that’s what we’re doing. But I think for the mental health and just for the continued health of our students, mentally — everything I can think of — we have to get them back into school.”

Still, the coronavirus is spreading more in Alaska than it has at any time during the pandemic.

Board member Andy Holleman urged caution and told the board it has seen the virus spread like "wildfire.” The district released a plan for in-person school two times, and both times COVID-19 spread in the community has derailed the plans, he said.

He praised the superintendent’s plan, which uses eight metrics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to evaluate the risk of opening schools. Currently, for one top metric, the district is in the CDC’s highest-risk category for transmission of the virus in schools: The city has seen a rate of 340.2 new cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people over the last 14 days, according to district data updated Tuesday.

Teachers have expressed fear about returning to in-person classes while the risks of COVID-19 spread are high. A survey of the Anchorage teachers union showed that about 80% of the more than 2,000 respondents are afraid to return to in-person classes. Nearly 25% of those who are afraid may refuse to go back.

But Bishop at the board meeting said that she sees the survey as favorable. Although teachers are apprehensive, when they do return to in-person school, they will be careful.

“I enter the community organizations that I partake in, whether it’s the store, a gas station, a doctor’s appointment — this office — with my own trepidation every day, which ensures my safety,” Bishop said. “I remember to wear my mask. I practice the social distancing. I wash my hands, use sanitizer.”

Still, opening schools does not just mean students and district staff might get sick, but rather has “the potential for making COVID move through the whole town," Holleman said.

"I don’t think anybody is sure yet exactly how much of a vector schools will be in that case,” he said.

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