Anchorage School District plans to stick with in-person learning amid virus uptick

Public schools in Anchorage will stay open to in-person learning as COVID-19 case counts rise in the district and the municipality.

A shift to virtual learning would be a “last resort,” Anchorage School District superintendent Deena Bishop said in a letter to families and staff Tuesday. In an interview Tuesday, Bishop said remote school can be especially hard on younger students.

“The priority is keeping our schools open and safe with in-person learning. Our students belong in the classroom,” Bishop wrote in the letter. “Nevertheless, things could change depending on how this recent variant continues.”

The highly contagious omicron variant has rapidly spread across the country, driving up case counts nationwide. Last week, Alaska saw about triple the number of COVID-19 cases compared with the previous week.

The district’s mask requirement is in place through the middle of the month, and a decision on whether to extend it will be made by Jan. 14, the day before it is set to end, Bishop wrote.

In December, Bishop had announced masks would be optional when students returned to classes after winter break in January, but the school board overruled that decision, extending the mask mandate.

Schools nationwide are grappling with decisions on how to hold classes this semester, with many opting to reopen with various mitigation measures in place.

The school district has testing available for symptomatic students and employees, with results returned in about six to 12 hours, Bishop said. The testing can help determine whether someone should go to school the following day.

Bishop wrote that the district is prioritizing in-person learning and that a possible contingency plan if staffing levels decrease too much may include taking time off school, similar to what the district did after the 2018 earthquake, to “build our staffing.” That time off would be made up with instructional days later through the spring with adjustments to the school calendar.

She wrote that virtual learning is a “last resort,” describing the negative impacts it had on mental health and learning for students.

Students and staff returned to classrooms Monday following a winter break in which holiday air travel was disrupted by bad weather and airline staffing issues due to COVID-19, heavy winds caused outages and destruction throughout Mat-Su and new virus cases rose nationally and locally. Bishop wrote that despite those setbacks, attendance Monday was down just 5% compared to the previous year.

“Our staff has been doing an excellent job supporting kids, educating them, but from being online last year, there’s a lot of growth to make up,” Bishop said. “And it is really important, I would say, to everyone in our community that we think about our youth.”

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.