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As Anchorage schools prepare to phase students back to classrooms, some officials ask: Why now?

Desks in a Huffman Elementary second grade classroom are placed six feet apart for social distancing on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

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As Anchorage elementary schools prepare to open for in-person classes for the first time in more than seven months, some local officials, teachers and school nurses are questioning the school district’s timing: Why send kids back into classrooms as COVID-19 reaches the highest levels of community spread that the city has seen so far during the pandemic?

Anchorage Assembly chairman Felix Rivera questioned the district administration during a joint Health Policy Committee meeting with the Anchorage School Board on Wednesday morning.

“It still isn’t clear to me and many members of the public why we are even considering this move to reopen, given the current trajectory of the virus," Rivera said. "You can have all the plans in place, but the virus can overtake all of the prevention measures staff and teachers have been working really hard to implement.”

Still, district officials are steadfast in their plan, which phases students back into schools on Nov. 16, starting with pre-kindergarten through second grade students and high-needs special education students through sixth grade. Anchorage classrooms have been closed since March, when schools across the state shuttered due to the pandemic.

Superintendent Deena Bishop said the district has a responsibility to educate its youngest and most vulnerable students.

While some students and families are doing fine or even excelling with distance learning at home, many families and students are struggling and suffering, school district officials said.

“What has really shown to us is the vital role that public education plays in this culture, in this community, in this society. And that weight is weighing heavy,” deputy superintendent Mark Stock said at the Wednesday meeting.

The district is weighing the shorter-term medical concerns of the virus with the long-term effects of school shutdowns on children and their families, he said.

“So we’ve prioritized the pre-K through two group that is highly vulnerable during these windows of time which we can teach literacy and develop them. If not, we’re looking at a multi-generational impact on our entire culture in this country,” Stock said.

Assemblywoman Jamie Allard said she trusts school officials and medical professionals in their decision to open schools.

“The day cares are open, fully open,” Allard said. “And if day cares can be open, our schools can be open.”

Bishop said three Anchorage students have died by suicide this year, including an elementary-aged student. The superintendent has pointed to the negative mental health impacts of school closures as a main factor in moving forward with plans to reopen.

But Bishop also said that on Tuesday, state health officials briefed district administrators and said that there has been no increase in suicides statewide. Board member Deena Mitchell pointed out that the state is on track to see fewer youth suicides in 2020 than in previous years, citing state Department of Health and Social Services data.

Janet Johnston, epidemiologist with the Anchorage Health Department, said she is not “overly concerned” with a marginal increase in hospitalizations if schools open as planned. But the municipality’s contact tracing resources are strained, she said.

Health department director Heather Harris said that schools could also provide a safer place for students than other places in the community if the district implements a strong mitigation plan. It could actually help reduce some community transmission, she said.

A large contingent of community members has voiced concern over the district’s plan and its top-down approach. It gives elementary schools guidelines and protocols to follow, but each school and classroom must come up with its own specific mitigation plan. Critics say classrooms and schools vary in their preparedness due to variations in class size, room size, ventilation and resources.

According to a letter signed by more than 40 school nurses and sent to the Assembly, school board and acting mayor, only 13% of school nurses surveyed on Nov. 2 believe it is currently safe to return to in-person school.

Nurses expressed several concerns with the plan to send kids back in November. Those concerns include the unequal ability to properly social distance in different classrooms, strained contact tracing resources in the municipality, and worries that negative impacts of the virus will be greater among families and students of color and those of lower socioeconomic means.

Some community members also worry that returning students to classrooms right before the holidays could lead to an increase in COVID-19 spread.

At a school board meeting Tuesday night, board member Andy Holleman suggested that the board amend its agenda and consider a motion to postpone general education classes until January, after the holiday season, but his motion to consider a postponement was struck down in a vote.

Holleman, in an interview Wednesday, said elementary schools have been working hard to come up with innovative ways to help mitigate the virus in classrooms.

But returning students right before the holidays, when families will be congregating, further increases the risk of children picking up the virus and spreading it to family members and friends, and also picking it up at home and bringing it into school buildings.

Holleman said he believes that the superintendent’s plan aims to help the students and families that need in-person school the most, but he worries that the benefits of opening classrooms while the pandemic is worsening do not outweigh the risks.

“The thing I keep looking at is giving them COVID will not help them one bit,” Holleman said. “With the rate that we’ve got in the community right now, that is a distinct possibility.”

District administration has the authority to open schools, Holleman said, but the school board could still hold a special meeting and a vote to postpone that plan. However, that seems unlikely as the school start date draws nearer, he said.

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