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Anchorage schools, civility and diversity

  • Author: Sarah Reynolds Westin
    | Opinion
  • Updated: October 27, 2020
  • Published October 27, 2020

Anchorage School District superintendent Dr. Deena Bishop listens to public testimony during a School Board work session on Tuesday, July 21, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

My second-grade child and I have needed to talk about being civil more than usual. Everywhere we turn, tension, uncertainty and volatility permeate folks' interactions. COVID-19, economic realities, the election cycle – just to name a few – have amplified everyone’s stress.

As my son and I remind each other, we must still be kind and respectful to others.

I feel increasingly unable to point out steady examples of adult civility. Before, I’d highlight “helpers.” Even that group requires case-by-case analysis now.

When the Anchorage School Board held its recent meeting, Superintendent Deena Bishop remained committed to opening schools for young children and self-contained special education students. Reports of how she was spoken to flabbergasted me. Breathing a sigh of relief, I was glad I didn’t have the broadcast on for my child to hear.

Many people doing the speaking were teachers – models for our children. While that yoke minimizes all adults' responsibility, it reaffirms teachers' special connection and unique affinity with kids. Most teachers understand they could be exposed to COVID-19, but want kids back in the class. Those perspectives feel muted, though – both in the meeting and in reports about it.

Superintendent Bishop demonstrated compassion for both sides and accounted for complex factors – a rare unison these days. Often it feels like things are painted as this or that, black or white, your way or mine. The superintendent refused simplistic classifications.

Is COVID-19 a reality? Yes. Could people be impacted? Yes. Might school staff face exposure? Yes.

Every person who works takes risks. Grocery store attendants, police officers, doctors, engineers. Name any job. There’s always a downside. If we don’t like our employment conditions, we’re not forced to stay.

Are factors outside of COVID-19 that impact our students and families worth considering too? Yes.

Superintendent Bishop affirmed that reality and noted the difficulty in creating a “matrix on human lives.” This phrase should be the motto for 2020 in America.

People are notoriously awful at weighing risk and predicting outcomes. In some ways, our evaluating criteria have improved, but they seem offset by a decrease in owning our choices.

Reopening schools might mean some teachers will leave. It might mean some students get newer or younger teachers. But those are ifs. Some things are certain, like factors mentioned by Superintendent Bishop, including a rise in failing grades and households' despair.

Each of us – teacher, student, and parent – must live with our choices. Going back to school should not be prohibited because a few dislike the idea and have the time and resources to say so.

Public education is set up in the U.S. so all children have access to it. However, parents are free to decide whether to use it. The same goes with employment. We can all pursue a job, but we don’t singlehandedly get to tell our employers how to operate things. We can respectfully voice our thoughts and then make – and own – our personal choices.

If your situation enables you to home-school, exist on one income or create a pod, there is room for you. If your situation requires in-person education for your children, there should be room for you too.

There are hundreds of U.S. school districts. Of the top 50 largest ones, only 11 remain closed in a fashion similar to ASD. Across Alaska, the ASD is the only one closed since March.

What’s more, ASD kids are diverse – not just in our racial and ethnic makeup. Of 42,000 enrolled students, 15% have individual education plans and 38% receive nutritional assistance. Superintendent Bishop wants to make sure the most vulnerable among us have access to the education and help they deserve.

I believe most teachers, parents, students and community members want kids to have the freedom to return to school, but as is common today, a vocal minority changes circumstances for everyone – be it for good or ill.

Thanks to a reopening of some ASD classrooms on Nov. 16, I trust my child will again be able to practice being kind and respectful and working out solutions with others who often get those three things right: children.

Perhaps, we adults should be looking to them as models these days.

Sarah Reynolds Westin, MFA, MA, is a corporate and creative writer and single mom who unabashedly supports civility and open, respectful dialogue.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at) Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.