Anchorage schools superintendent says strained hospital staffing drove call to delay school return

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Anchorage elementary schools won’t open next week as previously planned, primarily because local hospitals are struggling with staffing issues amid high COVID-19 numbers in the community, the school district’s superintendent said Monday.

Superintendent Deena Bishop announced the postponement Sunday night, a decision she called “heartbreaking.”

When evaluating the risks of opening in-person schools, the district considers multiple factors, including the number of occupied hospital beds and the number of occupied ICU beds, Bishop said in an interview.

Those are currently in a medium “yellow” zone, according to a report from the Anchorage Health Department.

“While those numbers have stayed in that medium range, we were given word that the ability to staff at the hospital was being crunched,” Bishop said.

At a special school board meeting on Monday, Bishop answered a volley of questions from school board members, some of whom voiced support for a return to in-person school as soon as possible, while others urged caution amid the rise in COVID-19 cases.

Bishop in the interview said that she made the decision during a meeting of school district officials on Sunday. During that meeting, the district’s director of health care services, Jennifer Patronas, shared with Bishop what she had learned about strained hospital staffing from a call with state and municipal health officials last week.

Some of the staffing issues at hospitals are due to workers having to quarantine, Patronas said.

The district has also started experiencing its own staffing issues, with an “uptick” in employees alerting schools that they had been in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19, Bishop said during the interview. District employees who are identified as close contacts must quarantine for 14 days or get two negative COVID-19 tests several days apart, she said.

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The staffing issues compounded and tipped the scales in favor of postponing the school start plan.

“Hearing it from them and then seeing in our own data — I had to make that call,” Bishop said.

Bishop’s plan would have started in-person classes for pre-kindergarten through second grade and high-needs special education students on Nov. 16.

It’s the third time during the pandemic that Bishop has announced a plan to return students to school buildings and then later postponed it. Schools have been largely closed for in-person learning since March.

Bishop during the interview said if case counts start to drop or health care capacity improves, it is possible for the district to implement its plan before the end of the year.

“We just can’t continue to tax the medical organizations,” Bishop said.

Another metric that the district is watching is its ability to implement mitigation strategies, like social distancing and contact tracing. This week that metric moved from a good, “green" zone into a “yellow" zone, Patronas told the school board. The state and municipal health agencies’ contact tracing abilities are taxed, she said.

The district is tracking the number of hospital beds in use as a metric for opening schools. But its numbers don’t take into account the staffing issues and how many beds can actually be staffed, Patronas said.

Several school board members applauded what they said is a careful, phased approach to bringing kids back into schools.

“I am for getting kids back to school, and I am for a phased-in approach,” board member Margo Bellamy said. “What I’ve seen in the schools is remarkable, people. The things teachers have done, and are willing to do, blows my mind. My issues have to do with timing. So, I do thank the superintendent for being courageous to say, ‘This is what I planned, but this is the reality.’”

Board member Andy Holleman, who has recently spoken in favor of postponing the plan until after the holidays, said that the pandemic’s status in the broader community has created instability for the district and its ability to stick to a planned course.

He said that more COVID-19 in the community means that it will be in schools in greater numbers once they do open, and that it is not clear when that will be safe or possible if hospitals and health care resources continue to be overburdened. If case levels continue to rise at high rates around the state — Alaska has seen more than a month of triple-digit daily case counts — then it could be weeks or months before it is safe to open schools, he said.

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Still, member Starr Marsett called for a return of all students to schools by Feb. 1. Marsett said that she has heard from many families with children of all ages who are suffering due to the closure of schools.

Bishop, who until Sunday had pushed to reopen schools, said that if the school district waited to open schools until case numbers no longer put the municipality in a high-risk category, children would be out of school for up to 18 months.

“I want to see joy, every day, in our buildings again,” Bishop said.

At the meeting Bishop also said that there is evidence that wearing masks and social distancing works in schools. She pointed to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District as a successful example of keeping schools open with minimal transmission among staff and students.

The school board at its next meeting will consider postponing school until Jan. 1 and tacking more school days on at the end of the year, which could extend the school year well into June for students.

The school board heard an outpouring of community testimony at the special meeting, with 47 people signed up for public testimony. Parents, teachers, school staff and community members expressed both trepidation and support for the opening of schools.