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Anchorage schools delay plan to bring students back to classrooms

Tubs containing toys have names of students on them in a kindergarten classroom at Huffman Elementary on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

The Anchorage School District is delaying its plan to phase students back into classrooms for the third time this school year due to increasing community spread of the coronavirus.

In emails to parents and staff Sunday night, superintendent Deena Bishop said that the district will not carry out its plan to hold in-person classes for pre-kindergarten through second grade and high-needs special education students on Nov. 16.

“The conditions across Anchorage are currently threatening to push the community’s medical capacity beyond its limits, as reflected on our COVID-19 decision monitoring,” Bishop wrote. “Additionally, the increasing number of close contacts has the potential to significantly reduce ASD’s ability to staff schools with predictability.”

Bishop in the email called the decision to delay classes “heartbreaking” and said that the district remains committed to getting students back into schools and will do so when conditions allow.

Bishop did not set a new start date but said that more information will be available on Nov. 15.

The number of cases of the coronavirus in Alaska has surged in recent weeks, breaking statewide records for new cases per day and for hospitalizations of people with COVID-19.

Bishop had announced a plan last month to begin phasing the district’s youngest students back into school buildings for in-person classes. Until her announcement Sunday night, Bishop had been steadfast that the plan should go forward.

ASD Superintendent Dr. Deena Bishop at Huffman Elementary on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

District officials are tracking eight different risk level metrics that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released in September to evaluate community spread of COVID-19 and the risk of opening classrooms.

One key indicator, the number of new cases per 100,000 persons within the last 14 days, is in the highest risk level category, with 984 new cases. Two hundred cases or more qualifies as the highest risk level for that metric.

Still, Bishop had said that the district is missing a critical learning window for its youngest and most vulnerable students. She had also pointed to deteriorating mental health among students and struggling families as pivotal issues tipping the scales in favor of opening schools.

Sunday’s announcement marks the third time that the district has announced plans to phase students back into classrooms and then postponed its plan, having delayed in-person classes at the beginning of the school year and again in October.

Since announcing the district’s most recent plan, Bishop and the school board heard outcry from community members, including teachers, school nurses and parents, who are leery of returning the district’s youngest students to in-person classes while the pandemic hits new highs.

Critics said the plan was too risky because the long-term effects of the coronavirus are not yet known, and the lives of teachers, students and their families would be at risk. They also worried that proper social distancing is not possible because schools vary in their preparedness, due to differences in class size, room size, ventilation and resources.

As of Nov. 5, the district had 33 active coronavirus cases with 188 people in quarantine after having close contact with a COVID-19-positive person, according to data shared by spokeswoman Lisa Miller.

Some school board members had voiced support for Bishop’s plan, while others questioned the timing. At a meeting last week, school board member Andy Holleman suggested that the board consider a motion to postpone general education classes until January, after the holiday season, but his motion to consider a postponement was struck down.

The board instead set a special meeting for Monday to consider postponing the district’s plan. Board members did not immediately respond to an inquiry as to whether that meeting would still be held, given the superintendent’s announcement.

Holleman on Sunday commended the superintendent for making a tough call.

“If the community works to get the numbers back down, on a downward trajectory, even if the numbers are still up, if we can tell if things are under control, and we’re headed to a better place, then we would be able to start back in,” Holleman said. "And that is what we all want. "

Bishop’s full email is below:

Dear ASD families and community,

Based on the increasing community spread of the virus and the rising demand placed on the Anchorage medical community, I am announcing this evening that the Anchorage School District will not resume in-person learning for Pre-K through grade 2, self-contained special education classrooms, or Whaley School on November 16.

The conditions across Anchorage are currently threatening to push the community’s medical capacity beyond its limits, as reflected on our COVID-19 decision monitoring. Additionally, the increasing number of close contacts has the potential to significantly reduce ASD’s ability to staff schools with predictability. Delaying in-person learning has been a heartbreaking decision, as we all have become aware that the best way to ensure we educate all children for success in life includes in-person learning.

ASD remains steadfast on getting its students back into schools and will continue its plans to do so when conditions allow. More details about the status of in-person learning for all levels of students and information about additional support services will be shared on November 15. Families in need of services are encouraged to call the District’s help line, 907-742-HELP. Help line staff are available to refer those in need to resources for food insecurities, technical assistance, and mental health resources.

In the meantime, please wear masks in public, practice good hygiene, and follow the Municipal and State health mandates. If everyone does their part in reducing the spread of the virus, the community will be on its way to getting students and staff back into the classroom where they love to be.

Sincerely,

Deena Bishop, Ed.D.

Superintendent

Anchorage School District


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