The Anchorage School Board heard an outpouring of public testimony against a plan to return some students to classrooms next month as case numbers of COVID-19 in the city remain high.
Still, at a Tuesday evening board meeting, superintendent Deena Bishop doubled down on the plan. It returns students in pre-kindergarten through second grade, and high-needs special education students through sixth grade, to classrooms on Nov. 16.
“I do fully recognize, as does our team, that Anchorage is in the highest risk level for transmission,” Bishop said. “I also understand that this virus is with us for a long time.”
Bishop said the district must find a way to move forward and meet its mission — to provide an equitable education for all its students.
“If we don’t prioritize schooling, I don’t know what we’re about,” Bishop said.
The district’s classrooms have been closed to in-person school since March. For months, it has grappled with the question of how to return students to classrooms safely and has twice announced a return to classrooms and then postponed due to rising case numbers.
Alaska is experiencing the largest surge in COVID-19 cases so far during the pandemic. On Tuesday, the state’s reported cases hit triple digits for the 27th day in a row. The state reported 111 new cases in Anchorage on Tuesday.
Parents, teachers, students, nurses, doctors and other community members flooded the school board with written testimonies or spoke during more than an hour of public testimony. Almost all expressed fear about the risks of opening schools as the coronavirus surges in the city, and doubted the district’s preparedness for holding in-person school safely.
“To completely disregard the risk levels and safety recommendations is reckless,” Kristin Bellonio, a teacher at Eagle River High School, told the school board.
Some worried about class sizes and said that it would be impossible to keep student desks the recommended 3 feet apart. Children will eat lunch in their classrooms, sitting in close quarters with little ventilation, creating the exact conditions in which the virus spreads, they said.
Bishop said that distance learning is not sufficient for students, especially the youngest students who are at a critical period for their learning development.
She also said that the district has proven that its mitigation techniques work because athletic teams operated for eight weeks without virus spread within the teams. Multiple teams quarantined throughout the season after virus exposures brought in by an athlete or district staff member from outside the community, she said.
“That is part of the mitigation plan. Not a failure — a success,” Bishop said.
Sarah Price, a junior at Eagle River High School, addressed the board in person and implored it to open high schools. Price submitted a resolution to the board, signed by multiple student body presidents and student leaders, that would alter the plan to also bring high schoolers back.
Still, many teachers said that the continuity of learning for children will be hindered by long quarantines and school shutdowns, and worried whether there would be enough substitute teachers to fill in the staffing gaps.
Several people who testified questioned why the district has changed the way it evaluates the risks of virus spread; it now uses a new risk level matrix with eight different indicators.
The main indicator, the number of new cases per 100,000 persons within the last 14 days, is currently 468, more than twice the measure for the highest risk of transmission in schools.
Bishop said that there is no longer a clear number that would propel the district into total closure. It must also weigh the costs of staying closed on its students, families and the community, she said.
“I don’t know how to create a matrix on human lives, due to loss of suicides. I don’t know how to create a matrix of families' despair," she said. "I don’t know what numbers to put on a matrix of the sadness and and suffering that’s going on.”
Monique Duggins, an elementary school teacher, said that she is furious because the plan risks some lives and not others.
“It’s appalling that we are not being treated equally, fairly or respectfully. How dare you lessen our value, and use us as guinea pigs, to work out the kinks of this reentry experiment — because that’s what it is,” Duggins said.
Bishop at the meeting declined to share information about when other grade levels may return to schools, but said that the district is taking a phased, careful approach.
“There aren’t any absolutes,” Bishop said. “We are moving forward understanding the services and needs in our community.”