Fewer classroom days, shorter hours and face masks: Anchorage School District announces plan for next month

Deena Bishop, superintendent of the Anchorage School District, outlined plans for the opening of Anchorage schools ahead of the 2020-21 school year. (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

Students in the Anchorage School District will go into classrooms just two days a week for the beginning of the school year, and spend the rest of their time learning online.

Also, students and staff must wear face masks.

That’s according to the plan announced by district officials on Thursday for the school year that starts Aug. 20. If things go well during the first few weeks of classes, the district may move back to a more regular schedule with students in classrooms five days a week, said Deputy Superintendent Mark Stock.

“Over those first few weeks of school we will ease into seeing how the safety protocols work,” Stock said at a news conference broadcast on Facebook

RELATED: Alaska pediatricians agree with national org, encourage in-person school this fall

The district’s highly-anticipated announcement about what classes will look like in August comes as schools across the country grapple with how to best educate students during a pandemic. It also comes as coronavirus infections in Alaska soar, and city officials raise alarms about repeated, high daily case numbers maxing out Anchorage’s public health capacity.

RELATED: Anchorage struggles to keep up with contact tracing and testing as cases surge

Stock underscored that the school district’s plan for reopening is flexible and could change depending on the virus and its spread. All classes could move online again, he said, or it could eventually “look like school as usual.” 

For now, Stock said, the plan is that students will be put into groups based on their last names. For the first few weeks of school, they will go into classrooms two days a week with those groups. The school day will be shorter: five and a half hours instead of the usual six and a half.

“The goal there would be to reduce the cohort size of those classes and give teachers time to teach the protocols, to build practice, to build the muscle memory of how to act and operate safely inside those first few weeks,” Stock said.

That also gives the city and district time to monitor how the opening of schools impacts the spread of the virus, he said. 

The district has roughly 50,000 students and thousands of employees. 

They went on spring break in March and never returned to in-person classes as the coronavirus turned into a global pandemic and school moved online.

Stock said there will still be options for students to continue learning online during the upcoming school year.

He said the Anchorage School Board will review the start plan, and then principals will alert students returning to classrooms about their assigned days in buildings.

The district hopes to move all students into classrooms five days a week “as soon as that’s feasible,” Stock said. A district document outlining the plan said it may be after two and a half weeks of school. The school day would still be five and a half hours.

Corey Aist is the president of the Anchorage Education Association, the union representing about 3,200 teachers, librarians, nurses and others in the district. 

He said he wishes the district would have had a teacher at the news conference to share that perspective. He also wishes he had more notice about the district’s announcement of its plan. He said he found out about it Thursday. 

In a phone interview after the announcement, Aist said teachers and staff want to be with students in schools and want to be teaching, but they also have concerns about safety, and the rising number of coronavirus cases. Even having half of the students at school each day, is still roughly 25,000 students across the district.

“We love the kids. We totally want to be there,” Aist said. “But boy, we don’t want to get them sick. And we don’t want their families to get sick.” 

Aist said he also wondered about the feasibility of managing masks and keeping everyone at least 6 feet apart while also teaching. 

During the news conference, Superintendent Deena Bishop said there is no perfect answer to the question of how to hold school during the pandemic. She said the district focused on creating a good, nimble plan with rigorous health and safety protocols. 

Those include requiring all students and adults in school buildings to wear face masks, though exceptions will be made for medical reasons, Bishop said. There is also currently a mask order for all indoor, public spaces in the municipality. 

“And our families that find this controversial — a mask — we’re offering them programs at home,” she said.

The district will also increase the cleaning of schools, and students will have to regularly sanitize their hands. 

The school board will hold a meeting July 21 to further review and discuss the start plan.

RELATED: Anchorage School District reopening plans for fall start to come into focus

Reach reporter Mayowa Aina at maina@alaskapublic.org and Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@alaskapublic.org.