The Anchorage School District will not reopen schools for its nearly 50,000 students and staff Wednesday because not enough residential streets have been plowed, district officials said Tuesday.
Wednesday will be a “remote learning day” because of dangerous unplowed streets, school officials said. The Wednesday closure, announced at 5:30 p.m., puts the time that students have been out of classrooms at nearly a full week.
“We’ve sent many of our drivers on the roads throughout the Anchorage Bowl today and have carefully evaluated our ability to safely operate bus transportation outside major road networks,” the district said in an email. “Large vehicles and small vehicles continue to get stuck.”
The city “needs one more day” to clear the neighborhood roads, the email said.
Anchorage students have been out of school on “remote learning” since last Thursday, when a major snowstorm buried the city in more than two feet of snow. Friday was observed as Veterans Day, with no school for students. Another snowstorm early Monday morning dumped an additional foot of snow on the city, and school was again canceled. District officials canceled school Tuesday as well, citing continued poor road conditions as the reason.
Some parents said they were thankful to the district for prioritizing safety, but others said they were frustrated and distressed with the mounting remote learning days, and questioned how snow — in an Alaska winter city — was again keeping their kids out of school.
“What if it snows all winter?” one mom wrote on the Anchorage School District’s Facebook page. “What is the plan??”
Madisyn Brown, an Eagle River parent of two, wrote to district officials about her frustration with the four days of cancellations.
“Families who are able to safely get their children to school should be allowed to do so,” she wrote. “Those families who don’t feel safe on the roads or are prevented from getting to school in some way, have two options: zoom in to join the classroom remotely or take an excused absence. If the conditions don’t allow for bus service, suspend it. Most schools spent 50% of the 22/23 school year without bus service and could find alternative transportation to and from school.”
Her employer had expected her to get to work every day since last Thursday, she said, and the roads were filled with people going about their daily business.
“Every time these things happen, my husband and I get closer and closer to removing our students from ASD and finding alternative schooling,” she said.
District superintendent Jharrett Bryantt has not spoken publicly about the closures. The district said Bryantt was unavailable for an interview Tuesday.
The district knows that canceling school creates a massive, citywide ripple effect, said chief operations officer James Anderson in an interview on Tuesday. With about 50,000 students and staff, a closure impacts close to 20% of Anchorage residents who would normally walk through the doors of an ASD school on a regular day, plus their families.
“I’m very aware that when we close school, we’re impacting the entire city. We don’t take it lightly, to not have our schools open,” he said. “But we have to have staff who can make it to work. And we have to be able to pick up students to be able to get them to school and drop them off.”
Anderson said the decision to close schools again after active snowfall had stopped came down to uncleared roads. On Monday, when officials looked at road conditions, about 34 of the city’s 64 sectors had been visited by plows at least once, he said. Twenty one had not been plowed at all since the beginning of the storms last week, he said.
“We knew a third of the city had last week’s snow plus this week’s snow on it,” Anderson said. “We were going to have a lot of students walking down the same road the bus driver was going to be driving on just because it hadn’t been cleared.”
Anderson said district officials see cleared roads as essential to school functioning, not only because of bus transportation for students, but for teachers’ ability to get to work and staff the buildings.
“It isn’t just students,” he said. “It’s the ability for our staff to even show up to open the doors.”
Early Tuesday afternoon, Anderson said he was optimistic about the chances of schools reopening Wednesday, because plowing crews had been on side streets and residential areas. But hours later, the district announced the Wednesday cancellation.
The district doesn’t do late start days because of its limited fleet of about 223 buses, which must pick up elementary, middle and high school students at staggered times, said Anderson.
And the school district has opted to cancel school at all its 91 campuses because of the interconnected nature of those transportation routes.
People should remember that the storms of the last week were historic — dumping nearly half the amount of snow Anchorage typically gets in a whole winter in less than a week, Anderson said.
“This is a historic amount of snow in November over five days,” he said.
In October, Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson trumpeted a new snowplowing plan he said would be ready in the case of major snowstorms.
“If this winter’s anything like last year, we are ready,” Bronson said at an October news conference held at a snow dump.
As of Tuesday it appeared that most sectors in the city remained unplowed on the city’s snow removal map.
Snowplowing crews have been working around the clock but “they are staffed for an average winter,” said city spokeswoman Veronica Hoxie. “What we experienced in the past week is record-breaking snowfalls.”
A city emergency declaration to speed procurement of contractors to help boost plowing hasn’t yet led to more plows on the streets, but that should happen in the next few days, she said. (Some already contracted additional plow crews are already working, according to Hoxie.) The administration wants schools open and streets plowed too, Hoxie said. She urged “patience and understanding.”
“It’s very complex,” Hoxie said. “I don’t think it’s fair to blame a single entity.”
Some parents have pointed out that many families don’t have the ability to oversee student remote learning or access to laptops. The “remote learning days” the district has called still count as school days. The district is aware of equity issues, said Kersten Johnson, the senior director of secondary teaching and learning.
“We put assignments out there for students to work on that are capable of that, with the understanding that not all families could potentially participate,” she said.
The district keeps track of how many students are participating in online assignments, but the district didn’t immediately share those numbers on Tuesday.