Despite surging COVID-19 cases throughout the Anchorage Municipality in the last few weeks, the school district is pushing forward with its plan to begin in-person learning for some of the district’s youngest students and special education students on Nov. 16.
While district leaders stressed that they are taking precautions to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and many Anchorage parents have struggled with at-home learning, some teachers and officials are questioning how the district can operate safely and if it’s worth the risk.
On Oct. 15, the district announced a plan to slowly phase students back into classrooms, beginning with in-person classes Nov. 16 for prekindergarten through second grade students, and high-needs special education students through sixth grade.
In an email to families and staff Sunday, superintendent Deena Bishop said schools will make safety a priority. Bishop also said that families have options if they want to continue with distance learning rather than having their children return to the classroom.
Bishop in the email told families the decision was influenced by “growing evidence in our own District and across the country that students' learning outcomes and other important social emotional needs are better served when they are physically in schools.”
Bishop previously said that the current distance learning system is failing students and families. Bishop said more students have received failing grades and have increasingly struggled with social and emotional challenges. She also expressed alarm about reports of self-harm. Bishop has declined to provide specifics on those reports, citing privacy laws.
Schools within the district have been closed since March, when the pandemic first hit Alaska. Previous plans to move toward in-person learning in Anchorage were postponed.
Now, with hospitalizations rising and the state reporting more than a month of triple-digit case increases, Bishop told families the district will proceed.
“We understand the risks, and though we cannot eliminate them, we have gone to great lengths to plan for mitigation,” she said.
As of last Thursday, there were 36 active cases of COVID-19 in students and staff within the district and 109 individuals in quarantine who were recently exposed to someone who tested positive, according to a district spokeswoman. Four sports teams were also quarantining, including the East High School volleyball team and the basketball, cheerleading and flag football teams at South High School.
Last week, due to rising local COVID-19 case numbers, Anchorage health officials urged the public to stay home, wear masks and avoid large gatherings. Officials warned that if case counts continue to grow, there could be more business closures.
Felix Rivera, the Assembly’s acting chair, said the Assembly does not have any authority over the district’s decision to return to in-person instruction. The body could call on the superintendent to reconsider the plan to reopen, or pass a resolution calling on the mayor to impose an emergency order restricting in-person schooling.
Rivera said he has not heard of any member advocating for such a resolution.
Officials from the school district are meeting with members of the Anchorage Assembly Health Policy Committee on Wednesday.
Bishop said Monday that the school district would abide by any municipal mandates that ordered in-person learning to stop, but said the district will not alter plans because of the possibility of closures.
“At this time there isn’t [a mandate] and we have the ability to do schools,” she said. “... And with that ask in the community of using those mitigation protocols, why wouldn’t we as a community prioritize education, especially for our youngest children? If we’re prioritizing going to restaurants, going to other places for entertainment — I think we have our priorities mixed up.”
It’s unclear how many students may return to classrooms this month, and Bishop said the numbers will vary widely between schools. Each school is reaching out to families individually and Bishop said the district should have a better idea of how many students plan to return by the end of the week.
During a tour of Huffman Elementary School Monday, Bishop noted that 17% of families at the school had previously decided to do distance learning. Out of the remaining families, roughly 90% of students at the elementary school who are able to return will be returning, she said.
Huffman Elementary principal Chris Opitz showed how several classrooms have been rearranged to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. In a kindergarten classroom, primary colored tables were divided with homemade barriers of clear vinyl fabric and PVC piping crafted by Opitz and other staff at the school. Toys were packaged in individual containers and labeled with student names.
Opitz said each school is operating on its own COVID-19 mitigation plan, but that each classroom will also operate differently based on the number of students in attendance and the physical space available.
Figuring out how to provide enough distance and create safeguards has been an exercise in logistics, creativity and problem solving, he said.
Opitz said teachers are rising to the challenge and doing everything possible to create a safe learning environment as they prepare for students to return. Opitz said the school will continue to troubleshoot and adjust protocols as needed.
Earlier in the pandemic, many teachers expressed grave concerns with returning to in-person classes and feared both for their own safety and that classrooms would quickly spread the virus and fuel the pandemic.
Anchorage Education Association president Corey Aist said by phone Monday that he believes those fears are amplified amid climbing case counts. Aist said the call to return to classrooms is a mixed message from officials.
“The community is confused and the teachers are confused,” he said. “They’re telling the district go ahead and bring all these people together, but how do we operate in an environment where there’s real risk and real costs, and consequences to that risk?”
Aist noted that in-person learning will look drastically different than it did before the pandemic. Students and teachers in classrooms will need to maintain distance, wear masks and use other mitigation techniques, affecting much of the normal in-person interaction that so many parents are craving for their children, he said.
Anchorage School Board member Andy Holleman noted for students who do return to classrooms, the switch would be a big adjustment, coming around mid-quarter and just before Thanksgiving break.
In-person classes could be somewhat unpredictable as cases cause temporary building closures for cleaning, he said, and exposed students have to switch back to distance learning while they quarantine.
The goal, both Aist and Holleman said, is to return to in-person learning. But how and when to do that remains a hard decision, they said.
“It has been very challenging in online environments," Aist said. “Teachers are putting in extra, extra time to make the environments as meaningful and purposeful as they can, they would love nothing more than to be back in the classroom. It’s just not the right time.”
Daily News reporter Aubrey Wieber contributed.