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One tough call would improve Anchorage education during the pandemic

  • Author: Anchorage Daily News editorial board
    | Opinion
  • Updated: August 28
  • Published August 29

Empty chairs and tables line a Northwood Elementary School classroom in Anchorage on Aug. 25, 2020. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

The first full week of K-12 classes has given Alaskans a look at just how tumultuous this school year is likely to be. Anchorage schools are all online for at least the first quarter, with administrators watching the daily new case counts to see if Anchorage will drop below the 30-per-day threshold that would allow for some measure of in-person instruction. But even if we get to that place, there’s no telling how long we’ll be able to stay there — the Mat-Su Borough School District, which is holding some classes in person, has already seen at least one student test positive, leading to a schoolwide closure for several days. And Mat-Su’s case count is considerably lower than Anchorage’s.

What Anchorage students and parents need is some surety about the school year, not the will-they-or-won’t-they saga of the current plan. That’s why it’s time for the Anchorage School District to make a bold decision: They should commit to a full school year of online learning for grades 7-12, and devote school building capacity to educating K-6 students in person, as safely and with as much space as possible.

This isn’t an original idea: Others have floated it as a potential solution, both in Alaska and other states — including in this newspaper. But as the COVID-19 pandemic grinds on, it’s clear that this blended educational model is the best that we can do for our kids, the safest in-person option for teachers, and the plan that best allows parents the freedom to do their own work and help get the economy running again. It’s time we admit that expecting our youngest learners to have a meaningful educational experience over the internet isn’t our best option.

Providing a fixed plan

The district’s current plan suffers from trying to be all things to all people. It operates under the theory that at some point, cases in Anchorage and across the state will wane due to cautious behavior by residents and natural processes. At that point, according to plan, the school year could resume in person for all ages. It’s an all-or-nothing approach that ignores the unique needs of student groups.

But the longer we watch COVID-19 take its course, the more clear it becomes that we’re unlikely to have prolonged success in beating back new cases enough to allow for in-person school to resume. Anchorage is still seeing case counts significantly above the 30-per-day threshold that puts schools in high-risk mode, and the weather is about to force us to spend more time indoors, where the disease spreads most easily. And even if we were able to reduce new cases to the point that schools reopened for in-person instruction, putting all of Anchorage’s tens of thousands of students back in company with one another could easily cause another spike in new infections. It’s clear that having all of the municipality’s students back in school buildings would be risky — but spreading half those students out across all of the district’s buildings is a better, safer bet.

Doing right by students

Older students — those in middle school and high school — are of an age that online education works better for them. It’s no replacement for in-person classes, certainly, but students in grades 7-12 have mastered the skills — email, video chat, screen sharing, how to mute and unmute themselves — that make online learning far less daunting. Younger students, by contrast, learn far better from in-person instruction, and every obstacle between them and their teachers makes for a much less meaningful learning experience for them. For young students, easily half of their education consists of navigating a scary and unpredictable world. Learning to wait patiently, resolve disputes, and communicate with each other respectfully is just not effective on a Zoom call.

Providing that in-person education and keeping students and teachers safe during the pandemic wouldn’t be easy, but it would be far more possible than trying to do so for the entirety of the K-12 population. Spreading half the students throughout twice the building capacity would help tremendously in establishing the distancing necessary to combat new infections. And testing and safety measures could also help catch any outbreaks early, even in asymptomatic cases: weekly testing of teachers conducting in-person classes, daily temperature checks for students, and innovative strategies such as wastewater testing that have allowed colleges and other institutions detect asymptomatic virus carriers.

Freeing up parents

In addition to providing a better learning experience for younger students, this school plan would give many parents the option to resume their own work and life routines instead of trying to juggle work, education, home life and child care simultaneously. That would be a tremendous boon to parents looking to return to work. It would also help Alaska’s economy in general, which is in precarious shape after the COVID-19 pandemic struck just as a fragile economic recovery was sputtering along.

Is this plan easy? Absolutely not. It would require tremendous commitment from the district, teachers, parents and students alike. It would require logistical adaptation and the reshuffling of curriculum on the fly. More than that, it would require bold and decisive action by district leaders. But it would also provide a concrete plan for the remainder of the school year — something that would help students and parents adapt to the reality of education during a pandemic. It would help parents resume their lives and return to work in whatever way they could do so safely. It reflects the reality of our situation, rather than maintaining a forlorn hope that things will magically get better just around the corner. For months, businesses across the nation have adapted their operations in ways previously assumed to be impossible, in response to this new environment — our school system is capable of doing the same.

Most of all, it would be a better, safer plan for our kids. That should be the bottom line that any educational plan is measured by as we find our way during the pandemic.