Anchorage Schools superintendent says ‘high probability’ students will attend all classes online next month

Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop and Anchorage School Board President Elisa Vakalis listen to public testimony on Tuesday, July 21, 2020. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

There’s a “high probability” that Anchorage School District students will attend all of their classes online next month as COVID-19 infections surge in the municipality, said Superintendent Deena Bishop. 

“The change has been pretty major,” Bishop said on Tuesday about the spike in cases.

It’s a pivot from the school district’s announcement earlier this month that it planned to have students attend in-person classes in smaller groups twice a week, and online the rest of the time when the school year starts Aug. 20. 

Since that announcement, Bishop said, Alaska’s COVID-19 cases have continued to multiply. The municipality again recorded a record-high, daily increase of infections on Tuesday.

“If the risk level is high, the response to that is not to put people in small places, in rooms together for long periods of time,” she said.

Across the country and the state, schools are struggling with how to hold classes in the fall as COVID-19 infections soar and the pandemic presses on. Concerns swirl about childcare, the importance of in-person education and all of the needs schools fill beyond academics. But, as coronavirus cases climb, there’s also concern about the infectious disease sweeping through classrooms.

RELATED: Anchorage records one-day high for COVID-19 cases

How the Anchorage School District operates in the upcoming school year is tied to the municipality’s case count.

The district’s plan says if the municipality logs an average of 30 or more cases a day over two weeks, it will move to its “high-risk” response plan. That means students learning online five days a week, and no in-person schooling.

It’s “medium-high risk” plan involves students in schools two days a week and online the other three. But that’s only if the municipality logs an average daily increase of 15 to 29 cases.

By Tuesday, the municipality had recorded an average of 27 new cases over the past two weeks, and the state was raising alarms that if there wasn’t more compliance with masking and social distancing, the case count would continue to rise quickly.

“If I was a betting person, I’d bet — and likely win — that we’d probably hit that number, which is 30 over the 14-day average, sometime in the next week,” Bishop said. 

RELATED: Additional actions needed, state warns, or ‘cases are expected to continue to rise rapidly’

Bishop detailed the district’s reopening plan at an Anchorage School Board meeting Tuesday evening. Board members also heard from dozens of community members, many of them teachers and parents, who raised concerns about in-person schooling next month and grave fears about COVID-19 spreading through classrooms.

“I am not ready to die. I am not ready for my family members to die. I am not ready to see any of my coworkers die,” said Kristin Hunt, a 20-year teacher and mom of three, who began to cry while speaking to the board.

“I’m scared to return with the school start plans we have, with the numbers rising in Anchorage daily,” she said. “This is a pandemic.”

Another teacher, Michaela Kolerok, told board members she’s preparing for the back-to-school season like never before.

“My back-to-school shopping list has consisted of trying to find PPE similar to what is being used in hospitals to protect myself and my family,” she said. “My to-do list involves setting up my garage so I can sleep there in the event that I am exposed to COVID on the job. It also includes creating a will.”

Elementary school librarian Vicki McCall asked the board: “Do we want the last page in the 2020-21 yearbooks to be an In Memoriam page listing students and staff who died from COVID-19?”

Overwhelmingly, those who testified Tuesday, including McCall, Kolerok and Hunt, opposed in-person classes next month. Several also called on the district to keep all classes online until the municipality records no new cases over 14 days.

An 8th-grader told the board he’s worried classes will be cut this year, and he won’t be able to take advanced courses.

“I’m concerned about this because students can and will be affected by this all the way up to and after high school graduation,” he said.

Bishop said she’s hearing from people on every side of the school reopening issue — some who want all in-person classes, some who want all-online and some who want a little of both. The district has said it’s also hearing from many parents about childcare issues if school buildings remain closed to students.

Bishop said there’s no perfect answer, but the district’s goal is to have a flexible plan that focuses on health and safety. She said the district created the plan with input from across the community and a group from Harvard University has vetted it.