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Anchorage superintendent unveils early plans to phase in some students for in-person classes in January

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

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The Anchorage School District superintendent on Tuesday night announced a four-step plan to phase students back for in-person school in small groups at all levels — elementary, middle and high school — likely starting Jan. 19.

But superintendent Deena Bishop told the school board that the district is still working out some details, like finalizing mitigation plans at high schools. There has not been a firm date set or a decision made whether all students will still be online-only when school begins after the holiday on Jan. 4, although the plan the superintendent presented Tuesday included that approach.

This is the fourth time Bishop has laid out a plan to reopen Anchorage schools since they were shuttered in March due to the pandemic. Plans have been postponed three times as the district shifted under competing pressures. Some community members have clamored for the district to reopen to help struggling students and families, while others have urged caution amid a rapid rise in coronavirus cases and as hospital resources become increasingly stretched.

The superintendent has said that the district’s distance learning programs are failing many students and leaving the most vulnerable behind, despite valiant teaching efforts.

The newest in-person phase-in plan would begin about two weeks after winter break, on Jan. 19, giving everyone who had traveled during the holidays time to complete a quarantine according to state travel rules, deputy superintendent Mark Stock told the school board.

In the first phase, elementary-age students who are struggling the most would go back to school in small groups during the mornings for tutoring sessions.

In the afternoon, all elementary students would log in at home for online classes.

“Those students who are struggling would get a double-dose of instruction,” Stock said.

In this phase, at the middle and high school level, small group tutoring and in-person instruction would also begin, limited to students who are struggling the most. Middle and high school students who are successfully handling online school would continue working from home.

“We could stay in this pattern of small group instruction for several weeks while we monitor COVID levels and mitigation strategies,” Stock said.

In phase two, which does not yet have a specific start date, pre-K through second grade and high-needs special education students through the sixth grade would return for 5 1/2 hours per day of in-person instruction, while third through sixth grade would continue with the small-group in-person morning sessions and afternoon online classes. Middle and high schools would continue with small group in-person tutoring and online classes.

In phase three, all elementary school students would return to in-person classes. Middle school and high school learning would remain online, except for the small in-person groups.

Bishop said that those small group sizes are fluid and depend on the needs of students.

The final phase brings all students back to schools for in-person instruction. That phase would not start until the fourth quarter of school, Bishop said when questioned by board member Alisha Hilde, although the timeline is not yet firm.

Stock said that the plan tries to address several key issues that had been brought up by the public, parents and teachers, including the ability to properly social distance in classrooms, which small tutoring groups will allow for. The plan should also build confidence in mitigation strategies by taking a cautious approach, he said.

“It does address equity concerns with students, because we are bringing in students who are failing their classes, students who have been disconnected, unconnected and struggling,” he said.

The municipality has currently placed capacity restrictions on schools at 50% of their fire code capacity. The municipality could further tighten that restriction, he said.

“We made this plan around a possible change to 25%,” Bishop said. If that happened, the district would have to reevaluate its plans, particularly at large high schools, she said.

Administrators also worry that the academic impact of school closures will be too large to address in a summer school program next year.

“There’s tremendous fears about us being able to run a summer school with the magnitude that we have right now,” Stock said. “If we don’t remediate these failures prior to the end of the third and the fourth quarter, we can’t possibly do all this through a summer program.”

Graduation data from the previous school year shows that some student groups may have been more impacted than others by pandemic-related closures in the spring, Bishop said. The district saw an overall 2.4% drop in four-year graduation rates from 2018 to 2019 to 2019 to 2020, but the drop was most pronounced for students who are Alaska Native, Hispanic or multiethnic.

A sometimes tense discussion followed the superintendent’s announcement, with some school board members questioning why the district can’t get more teachers and students back into classrooms sooner and Bishop saying that at times, she has felt unsupported by the board as she tried to return students to schools safely.

Bishop pointed out that the school board in early November had considered overriding her previous plan to start some elementary students back to school that month. Bishop herself announced a postponement of that plan as local hospitals struggled with staffing amid surging COVID-19 cases in the community.

“It really has been trying to engender the support to get people back because we knew we could do it,” Bishop said. “In hindsight, maybe we just should have pushed through and and had all these discussions back in September.”

School board member Dave Donley said that the district had already prepared to return its youngest students to classrooms in November, and that those students should return to full in-person instruction on or before Jan. 19.

”We need to get the little guys back into class. I think we should have done it on Nov. 16,” Donley said. “And I think we would have proven to do it the safe, responsible way and start to turn this ship around.”

Bishop said that the district is concerned with having the staffing available to care for its youngest students if they were to return to in-person classes immediately, due to travel quarantines and the high number of cases in the community. It’s an issue that has plagued the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District, which has kept its schools open but with frequent temporary closures due to quarantines and staffing issues, she said.

It could be possible to accelerate the phase-in plan, but there are several logistical hurdles the administration would have to address, including student nutrition and transportation, she said.

Schools across the district have opened 26 in-person tutoring programs, with more opening every week. A total of 52 will be running by the end of the quarter, Bishop said.

Jennifer Patronas, health services director for the district, told the school board that the district can run about 40 coronavirus tests per day for staff and students in face-to-face learning. It also has a “contact notification team” that alerts anyone who tests positive or is a close contact of an infected person in any district activity or building, she said.

“We are ready. We can do this,” Bishop said. “If the board stands up, we are ready and willing to get this rolling.”

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