Anchorage School District students will stay home on Election Day this year.
The district is calling it an “asynchronous learning day,” which means students won’t be in class and instead have planned activities set by individual schools and teachers to complete on their own time.
When pressed in recent days, school district and election officials provided a series of explanations for why Anchorage students won’t be in school on Election Day. Among them: it’s a way to reduce congestion at polling places, community concerns over student safety because many Anchorage voting sites are at elementary schools and open to the public, and also COVID-19 concerns that originated in 2020.
In response to a question about how the day impacts the schedules of Anchorage parents who want to vote on Election Day, the district wrote, “school calendar decisions affect all parents and their children. The purpose of putting the announcement into the published calendar schedules well ahead of time was to give parents as much lead time as possible to make arrangements as best for their situations.”
A ‘carryover’ from previous years
District spokespeople for more than a week refused interview requests about the decision to keep students home and instead communicated via email, though they ultimately issued multiple statements, revising the initial communication made to the Daily News.
District spokesperson MJ Thim, along with district employee relations specialist Andrew Ball, said in interviews on Monday that the district had kept an “asynchronous learning day” on Election Day on its calendar after it was first added by then-Superintendent Deena Bishop in 2020, based off a recommendation from Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer over COVID-19 concerns.
Meyer wrote in a May 2020 memo to all school superintendents that the state’s education commission had declared August 18, 2020, primary election day that year, as a “non-student contact day,” giving districts the option to not have students in school that day. At that point, though, the Anchorage School District’s first day of school was August 20, and school ultimately ended up being remote due to the pandemic.
But Meyer’s letter prompted Bishop to change Election Day 2020 to an “asynchronous learning day,” according to the district. Because school was remote at that time during the pandemic, “the public probably didn’t notice, because students and staff weren’t in buildings anyways,” said Ball.
In normal, non-pandemic years, the school district convenes a committee to draft a calendar for three upcoming school years at a time and then submits it to the school board for approval. But in fall 2020, COVID-19 was hitting hard and no students were in schools, so the district didn’t gather the committee, Ball said.
The district eventually presented a calendar for just the 2022-2023 school year to the school board in June 2021. That calendar was based on previous calendar templates, “meaning asynchronous day was just carried over” to this year, Thim said.
“It was a carryover from what we had done the year before,” he said.
Student safety concerns
But even before the pandemic, the state has made requests to keep Anchorage students out of schools on Election Day dating back at least to 2017, according to Gail Fenumiai, director of the Alaska Division of Elections.
In April 2017, Julie J. Husman with the state’s Division of Elections, wrote an email to Bishop requesting an in-service day be scheduled on Election Day that year.
“I think this would help to ensure the safety of the school children, less congestion in the hallways, and less congestion in the parking lots. This could be a win, win for both parties involved,” Husman wrote.
But since the calendar had been planned years in advance, the district did not schedule an In-Service Day on Election Day in 2018.
Thim said that following the decision to keep the asynchronous day on the calendar for 2022, additional concerns from the state’s Division of Elections, including over safety, emerged.
“I think when (Fenumiai) reached out to us in 2021, about 2022, it was already in motion to keep it as (asynchronous) day,” he said.
During a June 2021 school board retreat, when the 2022-2023 calendar was approved, school board member Kelly Lessens asked Bishop why an asynchronous day was scheduled in Nov. 2022, noting that everyone who wanted a vaccine would likely have one by then.
Bishop at that meeting said the reasoning stemmed from community concerns over “strangers coming into schools that are voting places.”
Citing the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 and a shooting that occurred in the parking lot of Anchorage’s Denali Montessori in 2018 that left one man wounded, Bishop said, “it was a reaction, I think at the time, to be like, ‘Oh, we shouldn’t have kids in schools, because we need to keep them safe.’ ”
Bishop told the board she was “highly confident,” however, that the district had the security and ability to keep students safe in school and that there’s value in kids seeing people vote.
School board president Margo Bellamy recalled that when the 2022-2023 school year calendar was approved by board members, she favored an asynchronous learning day on Election Day for safety and student health reasons.
From her perspective, Bellamy said that having an uncontrolled flow of people into and out of school buildings while there was heightened sensitivity around violence in schools and an ongoing COVID-19 pandemic meant it made sense to have an asynchronous day. She also said that Election Day can be disruptive to the school day.