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Anchorage School District plans to bring students in grades 3 to 6 back to classrooms in February

Teaching assistant Fherron Hines, left, and substitute teacher David Barger, right, help second-grade teacher Kristin Soult, center, prepare her classroom in the former art room at Creekside Park Elementary on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

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The Anchorage School District on Monday announced a plan to return third through sixth grade elementary school students to in-person school early next month.

Some will return on Feb. 1, the district said in a message emailed to parents and staff, but most third through sixth graders will go back to school buildings beginning Monday, Feb. 8.

“Bringing our youngest students and staff back into school buildings last week was a huge success,” said Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop in the email. “We continue to build confidence in our mitigation procedures across the District, and elementary principals are eager to welcome the rest of their students in their buildings.”

Elementary schools that will bring all or some of their students back into classrooms on Feb. 1 are Bayshore, Birchwood ABC, Bowman, Inlet View, Nunaka Valley and Willow Crest, the district said in the announcement.

In the email, the district also cited “improving community health conditions” as another reason to bring the students back. COVID-19 case numbers in the municipality have been trending downward.

The move represents the latest step in a phased reopening plan meant to return the district’s more than 40,000 students to classrooms across the city — a complex and controversial undertaking.

Last week, the school district sent some of the youngest students back to in-person learning for the first time since March, when the coronavirus pandemic forced school online.

The initial group to return to classrooms included preschool programs through the second grade, as well as special education students in self-contained classrooms through the sixth grade.

At the time, Bishop had said the district would watch to see how new health protocols and procedures were working before announcing a date to bring back older elementary school students.

Families have been given the option to keep students in online class, and a total of about 7,000 elementary students have come back to school, said district spokesman Alan Brown. Returning third through sixth graders would bring a potential of roughly 10,000 additional students back, though it’s not clear how many will opt to return.

Middle and high school students aren’t slated to return to in-person classes until the fourth quarter begins in March, according to the latest timeline offered by ASD.

Some families have expressed support for their children returning to school, citing factors including family stress, online learning inequities and isolation, while others, including the teachers’ union, have said that district mitigation protocols aren’t sufficient to protect students and teachers from getting COVID-19 in classrooms.

The timeline to bring back more elementary students is premature, said Corey Aist, president of the Anchorage Education Association, the union representing ASD teachers.

On Jan. 14 the union filed a preliminary grievance with the district about working conditions for teachers, citing what it said was inadequate distancing between desks and students eating without masks for an extended time, among other issues.

Teachers are excited to see their students in-person again, but are just beginning to watch how the mitigation protocols translate to real classroom life, Aist said. In the few days kids have been back in school, he’s heard reports of kids struggling to keep masks on all day and spending uncomfortably long periods with masks off during lunch and snack breaks, leaving teachers feeling vulnerable, he said.

The union hasn’t taken a formal position against sending kids back in-person, but would like to “support members” who voluntarily choose to teach face-to-face, as well as those who don’t want to yet, he said.

“There’s a lot of concern that (teachers) have been thrown into an environment where there’s a likelihood of COVID-19, mitigation protocols are hard to follow, and they haven’t been vaccinated,” said Aist, a former kindergarten teacher at Muldoon Elementary.

The state is considering moving teachers up the eligibility schedule for COVID-19 vaccinations, but no decision has been made yet.

With less than a week of in-person learning, the district is dealing with a few isolated exposures and quarantines at schools. As of Monday, one classroom at Bear Valley Elementary and one classroom at Kincaid Elementary were closed for 10 days due to COVID exposure, according to the district’s tracker.

Also, all students at the small Maplewood Group Home, a long-term residential treatment facility for adolescent girls run by Alaska Child and Family where ASD schooling is offered, were in isolation due to an exposure by a non-school district staff member.

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