When Anchorage students returned to school Thursday after a pair of severe snowstorms left area roads in rough shape, it had been a full week since the last time they had class. A scheduled day without classes Friday (Nov. 10) was bracketed by a snow day the preceding Thursday, then followed by the snowstorm Monday morning and two further days of “remote learning” while neighborhood roads remained largely unplowed. As any parent of school-age children can attest, it would be an understatement to say that little academic progress was made — and more realistic to declare that ASD’s unwillingness to reopen schools until most city roads were plowed was a fiasco for thousands of families.
It’s probably a good idea to stipulate a few major items up front:
• This series of storms was well outside of normal accumulation, particularly for this time of year. So far this month, a little more than 39 inches of snow have fallen, pushing Anchorage to its snowiest November ever — and already halfway to its total snowfall in an average winter. Even under an optimal response, it would have taken some time to dig (and plow) the city out — and we can all likely agree that what we’ve witnessed during the past week was not an optimal response.
• The Anchorage School District doesn’t operate its own plows. When it comes to the snow removal plan, the district is largely at the mercy of the municipality and state. This was illustrated most starkly by the inability to open O’Malley Elementary on Thursday, because the only road to access it remained unplowed. In an interview this week, superintendent Jharrett Bryantt called the city’s plowing efforts a “strategic failure.”
That said, despite the efforts of all involved, we should be disappointed at ASD’s wholesale shutdown of all schools and parents are right to expect more from the district. It begins with an understanding by district leaders that for Anchorage families, schools are critical infrastructure, on the order of services like police and fire/EMT response. Last week, despite the conditions, Anchorage stores, banks, libraries and coffee shops were open. Linemen, gas utility workers and wastewater technicians all showed up for work. Sure, operations were slowed and some business hours were limited, accommodations that most residents would understand. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a company, institution or government building that was entirely shuttered by the snow — except for Anchorage schools.
District leadership would tell you that schools weren’t closed, they simply shifted to “remote learning,” an oxymoron if ever one existed. The reality is remote learning — which ASD has adopted as a solution to avoid adding instructional days to the academic calendar — is no real solution at all. Systematic review of students’ academic progress during the year in which districts across the country adopted remote learning because of the COVID-19 pandemic showed that performance suffered in mathematics, language arts and reading. And the quality of education teachers were able to deliver during the past week’s snow days varied substantially depending on the adaptability of lessons, subject, attendance and sometimes haphazard communication of expectations for students. Despite this, Superintendent Bryantt was clear this week that remote learning will continue. Many parents felt it was a failure, and it’s a safe bet that teachers didn’t like it any more than they did. Perhaps it was better than nothing, but that’s setting a low bar for such a critical institution. Everyone involved should be able to agree it was no substitute for in-person instruction.
With that in mind, how can we improve schools’ ability to stay open? As mentioned earlier, the most critical step is a reprioritization of schools by all layers of Alaska’s government — the district itself, the municipality and the state. For the state and municipality, that means making sure that, at the very least, access to schools via arterial roads, and as many feeder streets as possible, is maintained immediately after a storm. And in neighborhoods where kids walk to school, it means making sure they don’t have to walk in the lanes of traffic to get there.
For the school district’s part, that means adapting transportation plans to what is possible: If a bus route can’t be run as usual because a neighborhood’s roads remain unplowed, set up bus pickup locations on adjacent cleared roads where students can come to meet the bus. And if bus transportation is still not possible in certain areas, it doesn’t mean the school — or all district schools — has to close. Most employers would give parents grace under the conditions if they had to be late in order to drop off their children — it’s much better than them having to call out sick to try to traffic-cop a chaotic Zoom session.
Even if it’s not possible to open all of the district’s schools on a given day, why not open the ones where it is? Conditions across the district can vary so widely from South Anchorage to Chugiak that a binary decision affecting all schools can’t be our best option. Even a “come to school if you can do so safely” policy, as is the case in some Alaska districts in the event of extreme cold weather, would do better at providing opportunities for learning than Zoom sessions that only a pittance of students attend. When asked about these reasonable options, Superintendent Bryantt only offered: “ASD is not going to select one school to be open and another school to be closed.” For parents, that’s an obtuse response at best.
Let’s all acknowledge that Anchorage schools are vital to the smooth functioning of our city, and their closure is a significant hardship for families and businesses. It’s also true — as we learned during the COVID pandemic — that remote learning is a hindrance to student progress. District leaders must understand that schools are critical infrastructure that should be open even in hard conditions — and take the necessary steps to make that designation more than lip service, so that students can stay on track and schools aren’t forced to make a no-win choice between remote learning and extending the school year.