Anchorage School District Superintendent Jharrett Bryantt said this week that the municipality and state’s inability to adequately clear neighborhood roads was to blame for nearly a week of closed schools, and multiple buses becoming stuck when they reopened.
“There’s a strategic failure when it comes to plowing as a state and as a city,” Bryantt said during a Thursday interview at school district headquarters.
Bryantt expressed frustration with Mayor Dave Bronson, who he said had earlier that week asked him to keep schools closed one day longer to allow more time for plowing, and then publicly complained when the district made that decision.
Bryantt also stood by his choice to shift to remote learning through most of this week. He repeatedly said that student safety was his top priority, and that his decision to keep families and educators off the roads was made after consulting district transportation experts.
“When I get a call at 4 in the morning, and I’m told that roads are unsafe, it’s because people who are very experienced driving in the harshest of winters in Alaska are telling me, ‘Wow, this is not good for kids, we do not recommend that you be open,’” he said.
‘A crisis situation’
On Thursday morning, a week after schools had first closed due to snow, students’ first day back was off to a rough start. Every bus was late, Bryantt said. Seven had become so stuck on unplowed neighborhood streets that they needed to be towed. One elementary school remained closed due to an impassable access road.
“We haven’t seen heavy snowfall since I believe Sunday,” Bryantt said later that afternoon. “It’s now Thursday. And we’re still in a crisis situation in the city.”
Major snowfall tapered off Monday morning.
As the week went on and the roads continued to pose hazards, frustration mounted among parents and families, many of whom were forced to miss work or scramble to find child care on the remote learning days.
The city and state have attributed their plowing delays to the huge volume of snow that fell quickly and densely, during what has now become the snowiest November on record in Anchorage. The head of the state Department of Transportation has referred to it as an “emergency situation,” and officials with the department have said its available equipment was ineffective against the deep, icy ruts that formed on state-owned roads in Anchorage, leading the mayor to divert city equipment away from neighborhoods to assist. Gov. Mike Dunleavy has not commented on the state’s plowing performance.
According to Bryantt, the district “asked the municipality what they needed” on Tuesday afternoon. Bryantt said he was told that the roads would be clear by Thursday.
“We were told we needed about 36 hours for the city to have less vehicular and foot traffic so they could prioritize routes that are used by buses or that lead into neighborhoods for families that send their kids to school,” he said.
But on Tuesday night, Bronson put out a news release framing it differently.
“I’m really disappointed that schools will be closed for another day,” Bronson said in the release. “... We are in constant communication with ASD throughout the day and provide them with frequent updates on the snowplowing operations. Ultimately, it is their decision, and we will continue working to get residential areas cleared so schools can open again, and buses can transport students safely.”
Bryantt on Thursday said he was “surprised” by that statement “because it’s very counter to the conversations that had been happening Tuesday afternoon with his leadership team.”
Asked about the superintendent’s perspective Friday, Bronson spokesperson Veronica Hoxie said in a statement, “The mayor expressed disappointment that the schools were closed for another day of in-person learning, just as parents expressed their disappointments.”
“He understands the importance of kids being in school and he empathized with those frustrated and disappointed by the circumstances. He respects the decisions of ASD,” Hoxie said.
When asked if the city and state were at fault for school closures, Bryantt said:
“Well, I think the roads speak for themselves on that question.”
During the Friday morning commute, a district spokesperson said there were more delays and two more stuck buses.
Remote learning likely here to stay
The recent spate of snow-related closures was not Bryantt’s first. Last school year, back-to-back storms and plowing issues cumulatively shut down schools for seven days, forcing the district to tack on an extra half-hour to the school day for several weeks to make up the time.
Asked whether the school district might handle future snowstorms differently, Bryantt said his current plan is to try to make remote learning days more effective rather than do away with them entirely.
That means families can likely expect a similar situation to what happened this month if road maintenance does not improve, Bryantt said. There are no plans for intermediate options such as opening some, but not all, of the school district’s 91 campuses, or opening without bus transportation and allowing excused absences.
“ASD is not going to select one school to be open and another school to be closed,” he said.
“If there was some sort of mass power outage, remote learning would not be an option at all. We probably go directly into a snow day, which means that there’s no expectation of learning or teaching on those days,” he said.
Bryantt acknowledged families’ frustrations with remote learning, which often put the onus on parents to act as teachers and can be especially challenging for elementary-age students who struggle with long hours on Zoom calls.
He said remote learning isn’t meant to be used for prolonged periods of time.
“This remote learning situation has extended longer than I believe any of us wanted or expected,” he said. “Remote learning was intended to provide a semblance of continuity between what students could learn when they were in person versus where they’re at when we returned to school.”
The superintendent makes the final call on whether to close schools due to inclement weather or road conditions. While a district operations official said earlier this week that the district was looking for about 80% of streets to be plowed before school could reopen, there’s no hard criteria, the superintendent said.
“Do we want to open school when the majority of our students can reasonably attend school safely? Yes, and that’s what we attempted to do today. That would be the baseline standard,” he said Thursday.
But the district also has to take into consideration sidewalk conditions for kids who walk to schools, and Bryantt said he has based his decisions on expert advice.
“I understand that the community is understandably frustrated when we have to close schools on days when it’s not snowing,” he said.
Bryantt said people have implied that because Bryantt is from Texas, he doesn’t understand snow or Alaska winter conditions.
“This Texan is not going to open schools when these transportation professionals are telling me it’s not safe to do so,” he said.