The Anchorage School Board on Tuesday passed a memorandum that directs the superintendent not to postpone current plans to begin reopening schools in January.
It also passed a resolution asking the city to prioritize the superintendent’s plan to phase students back into schools before it relaxes current COVID-19 restrictions.
Both the resolution and the memorandum aim to address the fact that public schools have largely remained closed to in-person learning during the pandemic while the rest of the community, including businesses, day cares and private schools, have continued to function.
The memorandum, “Equity for Public Education,” was introduced by member Alisha Hilde at a previous board meeting. It directs the superintendent not to postpone reopening plans “if inequitable public health guidance disproportionately impacts Anchorage’s public school children.”
Public schools have been closed since March, and the memorandum is a response to students bearing a disproportionate burden of sacrifice during the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hilde said.
Still, three board members voted against the memorandum and several people testified ahead of the vote, expressing trepidation that the move is locking the district into a plan during an unpredictable and rapidly changing public health crisis.
Superintendent Deena Bishop has three times postponed plans to phase students back into schools this school year, most recently in November, when she had planned to return some elementary and special education students to classrooms.
“That’s not reopening schools; that’s a very small group of children and a very controlled, highly mitigated environment,” Hilde said.
In November, public health officials implored Bishop to postpone the plan as hospitals grew closer to becoming overwhelmed. That public health direction unfairly placed the burden of the coronavirus pandemic on public school children, Hilde said.
“If it’s unsafe to reopen, it is unsafe to reopen, right? That’s a direction that I understand would come from our municipal government. But that wasn’t what happened. We had inequitable health guidance,” Hilde said.
Private schools were allowed to remain open, as were day care centers, Hilde said. Businesses were open too, she said.
The new memorandum does not tell the superintendent to ignore public health guidance, Hilde said.
The board passed an amendment adding to an explanation of the memorandum the caveat that the superintendent “maintains the authority to change, cancel, or open schools, based on what is best for all students, with the support of the Board.”
Hilde said that if the pandemic worsens in Anchorage in January and warrants the closure of public schools, she expects the superintendent will advocate for fairer COVID-19 restrictions, and that other similar community gathering spaces would also be restricted.
Bishop’s current plan returns some students to in-person schools on Jan. 19, beginning with pre-kindergarten through second grade, and high-needs special education students up to sixth grade.
At the board meeting, the superintendent spoke in support of the memorandum and said she does not see it as taking any managerial authority away from her position, but as being supportive of the efforts the district has made in preparing mitigation plans and readying schools for reopening.
Bishop during an interview Wednesday said that the acting mayor and other city elected officials have worked closely with the school district and support opening schools. The acting mayor has enacted mandates that will help that happen, she said.
An emergency order issued by Acting Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson in early November restricts schools to operating classrooms at 50% fire code capacity and remains in effect.
At a board meeting earlier in the month, Bishop had told the school board that she did not feel supported by them in opening schools. Bishop in the interview Wednesday said that the memorandum was an important step showing that the board publicly supports her effort to reopen.
Board member Andy Holleman, who voted against the memorandum, said that each of Bishop’s previous postponements were unexpected but necessary and careful responses as the pandemic’s spread increased in Anchorage.
He pointed out that private schools are small, with different conditions, and can turn students away from enrolling, unlike Anchorage’s public schools, which serve more than 41,000 students.
Holleman also said that the wording of the memorandum is problematic, and that it restricts the superintendent’s ability to change plans in response to the pandemic if it worsens. The pandemic situation in the community and the public’s understanding of the virus could soon change, he said.
Ignoring new information and a changing situation is “an abdication of responsibility by the board. I think it’s handcuffing the superintendent in a really bad way,” Holleman said.
Unlike the memorandum, Tuesday’s resolution elicited a united response from the board, passing unanimously.
It formally asks that the municipality “continue to partner with the Anchorage School District to increase community understanding of the relationship between COVID-19 mitigation and the ability to return to and maintain in-person instruction for Anchorage’s public schoolchildren.”
It also asks that “before the Municipality relaxes COVID-19 mitigation restrictions, the Municipality’s highest priority be a phased-in return to in-person instruction for Anchorage’s public schoolchildren for the remainder of the 2020-2021 school year.”
Bishop during the Wednesday interview said that similar to the memorandum, the resolution asks the city and Assembly to also show public support for public education.
Board member Deena Mitchell offered an amendment to the resolution that would have included metrics to act as goals for reducing community spread, such as working to reduce the number of new cases per 100,000 persons within the last 14 days to be below 200. The board rejected the amendment in a vote.
“The fact is that what happens in the community happens in the schools and what happens in the schools happens in the community,” Mitchell said.
The board’s actions on Tuesday to forge ahead with school reopening plans came as the first round of the new coronavirus vaccine arrived in Alaska.
Their actions also follow months of worsening daily coronavirus case counts and increasing deaths and hospitalizations that have threatened to overwhelm hospitals. In Anchorage on Tuesday, only three of 72 intensive care unit beds were available.
Many people called in to testify or spoke at the meeting throughout the evening, some in support of opening schools while multiple others urged caution. Many who voiced concern were teachers worried about the worst consequences of the virus and the possibility of it spreading in schools.
One teacher testified that a student’s single mother recently died due to the coronavirus and the student is now orphaned.
Keith Harjehausen, a teacher at Denali Montessori, said that a colleague had lost their spouse to COVID-19.
Harjehausen said that he worried community spread of the virus will worsen after winter break, when families will be traveling and participating in gatherings, and that the board should not adopt the memorandum.
“We need leaders who have the flexibility to adapt to what is happening in the community and the courage to make the hard decisions,” he said.
School board president Elisa Vakalis said that while she understands the fears, supporting children and public education is her responsibility as a board member.
The superintendent’s plan gives the district the opportunity to learn if its mitigation strategies are as “strong and powerful” as it believes, and to improve them, she said.
“Our goal is to get kids back in school and we have to start somewhere,” she said.
Clarification: Superintendent Deena Bishop at Tuesday’s school board meeting said that she did not feel supported in opening schools by the acting mayor, but in an interview Wednesday said that she misspoke and meant to say the opposite. She believes that the mayor has taken important steps in enacting citywide mandates that will help schools to open and has worked closely with the school district.