When will the Anchorage School District reopen to students? Possibly mid-October, district says

A teacher sits at her desk in a classroom full of tables and chairs but no students
Anchorage teacher Kelly Shrein would normally have more decorations up in her classroom but this year, because students are starting the year online, she hasn’t put much up. August 20, 2020 (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

The first day of the second quarter, October 19, is the target date to start bringing some students back into school buildings, the Anchorage School District says. 

The district will make an announcement next week about when and how in-person schooling could begin, Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop said in an interview Wednesday. 

The district will start with elementary and special education students. 

But the ability to bring students back largely depends on the city’s case count, according to Bishop. She said that’s in line with the most recent guidance from the CDC.

“First and foremost they talk about how the community spread of the virus is paramount,” Bishop said. “And to work with your local health officials in getting kids back to school safely. So certainly our plan has considered that.”

Currently, the 14-day average of daily case numbers is 41, according to the district’s website, which is too high for in-person learning. The target is 29 and below.

But the district is constantly reviewing that criteria, based on information from the city and other local health officials. And there are other factors that will inform the district’s plan to safely return students to classrooms. 

The district is closely watching how the start of the high school sports season goes. The district is also starting its own voluntary program focused on building reading skills in the district’s youngest learners. 

Related: Anchorage high school sports OK’d to tackle games next week

Students in third grade and below will be able to go into school classrooms in small groups and be tutored by volunteer teachers. Bishop said the program is set to start September 28.

“Having 10 kids in a building, or 20 kids, is different than having 400 and ensuring that same safety and those same protocols,” Bishop said. “As we build muscle around all of those things that we know work to mitigate the risk of the spread of this virus, we’ll support our community and its overall health.”

The district is looking at other ways to support students, Bishop said, including partnering with organizations like the YMCA and Camp Fire, which has been using district facilities since the spring, to provide child care in the district’s buildings. She said she hopes to see more of those partnerships happen. 

Those programs are voluntary, and costly, but they are models for how to operate safely Bishop said. 

The Mat-Su school district is another model Bishop said she is looking at. The Mat-Su district took a different approach to learning this year starting with in-person classes. 

To date, the district has confirmed at least seven COVID-19 cases among its students that led to the temporary closure of four different schools, but overall case counts in the Mat-Su Borough have remained low.

Related: Cluster of COVID-19 cases closes three schools in Mat-Su School District

Bishop said while the two communities are very different, she’s watched as the Mat-Su district has quickly adjusted their protocols.

“I envy that status that they have, a medium risk,” Bishop said. “But also we’re learning about some of the factors that probably will occur here as well, and that we can be nimble and can operate with COVID.”

Another lesson the district has learned from watching other districts, Bishop said, is that a split schedule doesn’t work. Currently the Anchorage School District’s in-person school plan at the medium risk level includes a split schedule where smaller groups of students attend class in-person two days per week. Bishop said the district has abandoned that plan.

 

Anchorage school district scheduling matrix for fall 2020. (Screenshot/Anchorage School District website)

“We’ve not only received feedback from some teachers that doing both of those things is going to be difficult, having a group at home and a group at school, but also from families,” Bishop said. 

The district’s school start task force, which is made up of community members, district staff, and health practitioners, is currently debating and researching best practices for returning students to the classroom.

The plan to bring students back into classrooms received a mixed reaction from teachers.

Related: Anchorage School District principals to administrators: ‘We’re fed up.’

Corey Aist is the president of the Anchorage teachers’ union. He says he’s still surveying teachers to see how they feel. 

“It’s a really hard decision and members are torn,” Aist said. “Some members are really excited and would love the opportunity and other members would want nothing to do with it and would like to keep their distance and keep everyone safe. And there’s probably a lot of people in between that are apprehensive.”

Aist said, ultimately teachers do want to be back in the classroom and are working towards a safe and successful solution for all parties. 

Bishop said she’s keeping an eye on case counts in Anchorage. Outside of outbreaks at the Brother Francis shelter and McLaughlin Youth Center, she likes what she sees.  

Related: COVID-19 outbreak among Anchorage’s homeless points to gaps in testing strategy

“If you take those out, the mass community spread is really low and I see we’re moving in the right direction,” Bishop said.

Bishop said she hears the frustrations of families “loud and clear. [I have] many sleepless nights.” But she has an optimistic outlook on how the school year is going. She said she is delighted to see the creativity of the students, families, and teachers in making a difficult situation work.