By all accounts, this winter in Anchorage has been off to an unprecedented start. As reported by the ADN, winter storms have dropped more than three feet of snow since last week — a historic amount for November. This extreme weather event has had a negative impact on our city, resulting in abandoned vehicles, power outages and a significant number of unplowed neighborhoods and streets. Because of these unsafe conditions, I had to make the extremely difficult decision to pivot students to remote learning for four days. While these decisions are not made lightly, the Anchorage School District (ASD) must prioritize the safety of our 50,000-plus students and staff.
Even as ASD attempted to safely reopen schools this Thursday, unplowed roads resulted in more than 50 bus routes being canceled and kept O’Malley Elementary school closed. We recognize that when schools are closed, it can cause stress and uncertainty for our families. We want to assure the community that in the face of extreme weather events, ASD engages in a comprehensive decision-making process. We review various weather forecasts and have multiple conversations with the National Weather Service in advance of making decisions. We coordinate with our partners at the Alaska Department of Transportation to understand conditions of state roads, which constitute most of our large highways and thoroughfares. Simultaneously, we collaborate closely with the Municipality of Anchorage’s street maintenance team to assess the progress of neighborhood plow-out efforts.
We also gain a firsthand understanding of road conditions; ASD’s transportation teams are often deployed overnight to assess road conditions during inclement weather. This on-the-ground evaluation goes beyond just the main roads and highways, extending to the condition of neighborhood streets. We understand that the safety of our students is not confined to their time on buses, main roads, or sidewalks; it encompasses their entire journey to and from school. We do not make the decisions for remote learning and to close schools lightly, and when we do, it is informed by data and an urgency to keep families safe.
There is still work to be done to improve our response to these challenging weather situations. As we begin the process of returning to school, one of my priority focus areas is to improve the remote learning experience for students and staff during future weather events. Last year, we joined other school districts in implementing remote learning during inclement weather so that students can continue learning and interacting with their teachers. Remote learning is not intended to replace in-person instruction, but rather to assist with some continuity of learning during severe weather. I am firmly committed to gathering feedback to improve practices and student learning in this format.
But above all, our schools depend on the help of the municipality and state DOT to stay open after major storms like the one we just faced. Students get to school via vehicle, bus and sidewalk, all of which are negatively impacted by large volumes of snow on the streets. I recognize the MOA and DOT snow removal teams are working around the clock and doing a fantastic job, but I urge our city and state leaders to reevaluate the strategy and resource allocation moving forward. The stakes are too high for our children.
We appreciate the understanding and cooperation of our community during these challenging times and remain committed to transparent communication as we continue to evolve and refine our processes in the face of unpredictable weather events. We also want to be a strong partner with the MOA and DOT so that we can all emerge from this winter stronger and more prepared than ever before.
Finally, I want to thank our students, staff and community. Their resilience through this situation has been amazing. We put a heavy burden on them. I’ve received countless emails with constructive feedback on how we can do better. We are reading every one — thank you to all.
Jharrett Bryantt is the superintendent of the Anchorage School District.
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