Fairbanks schools to start online

West Valley High School (Photo via Creative Commons)

Fairbanks North Star Borough schools will start with fully-remote learning on August 20.

At a six-hour school board meeting Monday evening, directors voted to re-assess school readiness and safety every two weeks. Whether to eventually move into classrooms hinges on COVID-19 numbers.

A new standard of fewer than five new cases of COVID-19 for a two-week period would be the preferred measure for returning to classrooms in the Fairbanks North Star Borough. However, Fairbanks and North Pole are nowhere close to that number.

Superintendent Karen Gaborik asked the board to consider starting fully remote on August 20, with a look at moving kids to the classroom after Labor Day.

“I think there is a lot of value to bringing staff back and working through some of these things and continuing to be sure that we’ve got all the parts and pieces in place before we start thinking about bringing students back,” she said.

The calendar has already been changed to allow school staff a longer lead time before school. Teachers will return August 10, and have eight school days to reconfigure classrooms before students are supposed to return August 20. But some are concerned that might not be long enough given all the chaos associated with the pandemic.

Each school has to figure out smaller cohorts of students with different schedules, some with siblings at other schools, some meeting on different days, some needing hot lunches, some needing busing.

Director of Nursing Services, Lori Schneider says school nurses also need time to figure out new safety protocols.

“There’s a lot of things that are going to change this year, and so we need to set the buildings up. A lot of the changes require nurses working with the building principals because every environment the children are going to is going to be different,” she said.

The board again discussed onsite options, e-learning options, and the BEST homeschool program.

Still unknown is a standard for shutting down or reopening schools when children or teachers are exposed to COVID-19 and need to quarantine.

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Pediatrician Michele Nace is on the district’s planning council, which has developed a chart of red, yellow or green, representing high, medium and low risk. Each level looks at the number of COVID cases, adequate staff and adequate space in schools.

“This is not a black and white decision matrix to decide if school is going remote or doing in-person learning. This is one more tool to help guide to make those decisions,” she said.

The board also heard emailed testimony from parents asking for kids to return to the classroom, from teachers saying they would not return to the classroom until the pandemic is over, and from students asking about safety in school hallways and at lunch times.

Board member Erin Morotti asked the board to vote Monday night on how school will start.

 “We’re only giving our community, our working parents, our students two weeks notice,” she said.

Eventually, the board voted to keep kids out of the classrooms, at least for the initial weeks of the school year. School will start with remote learning, including online lessons for some. The board voted to reassess the relationship of the pandemic to school readiness every two weeks.