Anchorage schools have a lesson to teach about COVID response

After the sound and fury that attended the debate over the Anchorage Assembly’s municipal mask mandate, it was easy to forget that not every decision on COVID policy was similarly fraught. Indeed, as residents piled into the Loussac Library to castigate the Assembly for proposing that masks should be worn in public, one in six residents of the municipality were already abiding by a strong COVID mitigation plan — one with little of the same drama and, more importantly, one which has now been widely accepted and successful at keeping COVID-19 cases low for more than three months.

When it comes to COVID response, the Anchorage School District has set an admirable standard so far this school year.

Last year’s Zoom school was better organized than the triage situation that took place in spring 2020, but it was still a far cry from in-person classes, as students, parents, teachers and administrators alike readily acknowledged. With that in mind, in early August, ASD made a plan and stuck to it:

• Social distancing and hygiene requirements to the extent possible in a school setting.

• Masks required at all K-12 schools for students and teachers, regardless of vaccination status.

• Standards for response if clusters of cases developed.

• Promoting vaccination for teachers and eligible students.

• Transparent tracking of cases by school, as well as contact tracing for those potentially exposed.

The delta variant surge was on the rise, and although some parents protested pieces of the plan, Superintendent Deena Bishop and the school board judged the risks of going into the school year with a wait-and-see approach as too great.

Three months later, looking back at the delta surge as it wanes, it looks like ASD made the right call. Although Anchorage has seen close to 5,000 total cases of COVID among its roughly 48,000 students and staff, those cases have largely been spread out, with few school closures. By comparison, dozens of schools in other Southcentral districts had to temporarily close their doors to in-person education at various points in the delta variant surge as outbreaks emerged in clusters.

Having health measures in place to help mitigate outbreaks, coupled with clear standards on what levels of cases would trigger responses at individual, classroom and school levels has kept ASD from resorting to panic-driven snap decisions about closures. The primary beneficiaries have been students and parents, who largely haven’t had to deal with the whiplash between in-person and online instruction.

Credit is due to all involved. Anchorage’s students, who have put up with the inconvenience of health measures with grace, understand that doing so is the price of a more normal school experience. Teachers have been willing to return to in-person instruction and the greater risk of exposure to COVID even with masks to help mitigate. And Superintendent Bishop and the school board have had their priorities straight by doing what’s necessary to have kids in school — and making sure it’s safe for them to be there.

Not only did the schools’ dedication to taking measures to maintain in-person instruction help keep cases lower in the face of a surge that overwhelmed Alaska’s hospitals, it bought time while the Food and Drug Administration reviewed data on the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccinations for the last major group of schoolchildren — those ages 5 to 11 — who remain unprotected. As of Nov. 2, those children are eligible to get vaccinated, which creates a pathway for all K-12 students to be protected from COVID. And if student and faculty vaccinations reach sufficient levels, it’s easy to envision a return to a school experience that’s much closer to the pre-pandemic normal.

As for the rest of us, we would do well to consider the example ASD has set so far this school year. There’s no reason that the minor inconveniences incumbent in responding to the COVID pandemic should disrupt municipal government functioning and drive neighbors apart. If we’re all willing to do our part, as our kids have done and are doing, we just might get to return to normal more quickly.