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Gov. Dunleavy clarifies statewide COVID-19 emergency alert does not mean schools must close

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Thursday afternoon clarified that an emergency alert he issued earlier in the day asking local governments and organizations to work remotely does not apply to schools. At least one Alaska school district had announced a closure in response to the alert.

“The governor was not suggesting schools should be closed and does not believe there should be a statewide mandate to close schools,” Jeff Turner, spokesman for the governor’s office, said in an emailed statement.

In his original statement, the governor said, "Businesses, organizations, and local governments that can operate remotely are urged to send their employees home as soon as possible.”

It came as new daily COVID-19 case counts in Alaska have risen for weeks, and health officials warn that the growing number of cases could overwhelm the state’s health care staff.

Shortly after the governor’s statement Thursday, the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District announced a closure of its school buildings. Starting Monday, it will switch to fully remote learning through the end of the month.

“Given the continued high rates of transmission in Fairbanks, as well as the numbers of positive COVID-19 cases in the district, the school district will comply with the Governor’s request,” superintendent Karen Gaborik wrote in an email to families and staff.

Several other districts requested clarity from the governor and the state Department of Education and Early Development, including the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, which also announced an extension of closures on Thursday at 34 of its schools, at least through Thanksgiving break.

Most Kenai schools have been closed for weeks except to pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and intensive needs special education students. Those Kenai students were able to attend Friday, but the district on Friday announced a total closure at the 34 schools starting Monday.

Anchorage schools remain online-only — the superintendent announced this week that the Anchorage School District was delaying a plan to phase students back into classrooms. The Anchorage School District clarified the governor’s intent in a call Thursday, district spokesman Alan Brown said.

“We’re driving on with our planning, and we certainly are eager to get our kids back into school just as soon as conditions in the community allow,” Brown said.

Officials in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District were also on the call with the governor’s office and are expecting further guidance from the state’s education department as transmission rates rise, spokeswoman Jillian Morrissey said.

In the meantime, Mat-Su schools are continuing as usual, although several schools are temporarily closed due to COVID-19 cases. The district has seen 164 cases in schools over the last 14 days, according to its data.

The Juneau School District on Friday announced that it is delaying its plan to slowly bring regular education students back into schools for in-person classes. It had planned to bring kindergarten students back as soon as Nov. 30, but in-person learning will now begin no sooner than Jan. 11.

The changes came in response to Dunleavy’s emergency message, the Juneau School District said in its announcement.

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