Mat-Su school district charts its own path to reopening

Colony High School (Image from Mat-Su Borough School District)

The Mat-Su School Borough School District says it will open up schools to in-person classes on August 19 under a ‘green’ status, even if case rates continue to rise in the borough.  

State guidelines for reopening schools state that districts should decide what type of classes to have based on rates of community transmission. The Mat-Su District is defining the rate of community spread within each individual school, instead of by the rate of spread within the community, as the Anchorage School District is doing. 

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

Acting Superintendent Luke Fulp said that definition is a better fit for the Mat-Su Borough and that it complies with the state’s Smart Start 2020 plan.

“By defining each school as a community, it allows us to make decisions that are responsive to the needs of that facility, given the risk of spread within that facility, yet not interrupt the instruction and learning that’s occurring at other schools across the district,” he said.  

For example, an outbreak in Talkeetna won’t shutdown schools in Palmer. While there is still room for changing the borough’s approach to case rates, Fulp said that the state’s regional alert levels, which currently put the Mat-Su Borough at an intermediate level, will only be one factor in a decision to cancel.

“The alert levels that the states monitoring and producing data around — those are not going to be triggers,” he said.

The only absolute factor that might change the district’s decision would be a statewide mandate to close schools. 

RELATED: Line One: Alaska experts discuss whether it’s safe to send kids back to school

Otherwise, in-person schooling won’t be canceled until there is a confirmed case of a staff member or student, at which point the school will close for several days for contact tracing and cleaning. 

Dianne Shibe, president of the Mat-Su Education Association (MSEA), the teacher’s union, said that while she understands the district’s decision, there are still issues to be resolved. 

“A student can be going to Colony High but then they also at some point travel over to Career Tech for a couple classes. And people travel in the Colony High in order to do like welding and things like that. So it’s not like any given school is an island all by itself,” she said. 

RELATED: Anchorage School District postpones start of fall sports until at least Aug. 5

There’s also the issue of busing, since some schools share buses. Still, Shibe says a bigger issue for MSEA is the number of classes. She’s been pushing the district to reduce the number of classes in secondary schools from seven to just three. That would reduce the amount of cleaning that teachers would have to do between each class period and reduce exposure. 

“Just that mathematically, obviously, you’re going to be less likely to contract the virus if you go to the three-class quarter,” she said. 

So far, the district hasn’t given any indication that it would pursue that, and changing schedules around would require lots of extra work, says Shibe. 

“It’s a difficult thing. But I think we can do the difficult things when we have the proper motivation,” she said.  

Another way Mat-Su is diverging from the ASD is through it’s mask-use policy. The school district also says it won’t require masks, though the district will “highly encourage” their use. Fulp says that individual school principals will decide how to encourage mask use and ensure that there is no stigma for wearing masks. 

“It’s something that they can create positive school culture around and work with their students and staff to make sure that it’s something that becomes just a part of the way that we operate. And it’s not — There’s no stigma that goes along with it. We’re confident in our building principals to be able to do that,” he said. School staff are already well-trained to recognize bullying, he said. 

But even without any outbreaks, Fulp admits there is also concern about school staffing. With an extra two weeks of leave time provided by federal legislation for teachers who are in quarantine or experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, Fulp said the possibility of staff absenteeism is high. That could lead to schools being closed temporarily. The district already struggles with filling in substitute teacher positions, and so Fulp says that the district is trying to fund pay incentives for subs who work a certain number of days.

But much of the success of getting teachers in may depend on properly communicating a reopening plan. So far, that effort has been complicated by a transition to a new superintendent, who won’t be fulltime until August, says Shibe. 

She attributes the results of a survey by a statewide teachers union that found 68% of staff in the Mat-Su district said that they were “somewhat” or “very uncomfortable” with their district’s plan on reopening to the lack of communication by the district.