Excitement and betrayal: families and teachers react to Anchorage plan to return to classrooms

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)

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Last week, Karli Lopez had heard in a parenting group for special needs children that all special-ed students would be returning to classrooms October 19. After asking around she found that it was a goal that the district was working towards but it wasn’t official. She kept her fingers crossed. 

When she saw Wednesday’s news that the Anchorage School District would return to in-person learning next month, she was relieved. Anchorage’s schools have been shut down for over six months, since the pandemic landed in the city back in March

Students started this school year on August 20 with online-learning only. 

“Myself, and a bunch of other parents of kids with special needs, have not known what to do during this time,” Lopez said. 

The plan calls for elementary classes and all special education classes to resume on October 19. Middle school students are set to return in mid-November, and high school students are scheduled to go back on January 4. 

RELATED: Anchorage School District outlines plans for return to school buildings 

Lopez’ son, who has Down syndrome and autism, is in the third grade. Lopez said he hasn’t truly had the services the district is required to provide by law for weeks.

“Not only is he not getting the normal experience period, he’s not getting any of the additional things he’s supposed to get to get an equitable education to his peers,” she said.

There is no workable virtual learning alternative for speech therapy or occupational therapy, she said. 

Lopez said she feels confident in the safety protocols for special needs classrooms since they are already small and dynamic based on children’s behaviors.

“This is going to be a challenge for us as a family as well as for everyone else,” she said. “I don’t know what the impact is going to be. But it’s sure time we tried it.”

RELATED: LISTEN: Anchorage schools superintendent talks challenges of educating during a pandemic

Joclyn Reilly also feels confident in the plan to return to school. Parents were able to ask questions of her school’s principal during a Zoom meeting Wednesday night for families at Bowman Elementary.

“Our principal was very confident, very positive, about going back to school in person,” she said. It was an attitude Reilly said was “contagious.” 

Reilly said she’s had to hire a babysitter to help her 3rd and 6th grade kids with their school work on days when she’s working. She trusts her school and the district to have a plan in place by the time in-person learning starts. 

Other parents met the district’s news with a lot more skepticism and fear. For Amie Collins, the district’s plan came as a shock. Collins’ 6-year-old son is in the first grade. 

“It was really destabilizing to hear that news,” she said. “It felt like we’ve thrown out the plan we all agreed to or accepted, and now we’re just making it up as we go. I felt really betrayed by that.”

Collins said her family based their decisions about school enrollment on the plan the district had already laid out, choosing to stay in an optional program rather than homeschool. She said she feels “backed into a corner“ now because she doesn’t think it’s safe for her son to return to school. 

“We’ve kept our social bubble really small and now we don’t know how far we’re being asked to expand it by adding all of these other children into our circle,” she said. “We’re living in a culture where people are proud to be anti-mask, and they’re blatantly defying municipality mandates.”

Being an elementary school student, her son would be one of the first to return to school buildings.

“He gets to be the guinea pig,” she said. “Which just blows my mind that parents should be asked to do that.”

Even though high school students will be the last to return, East High language arts teacher Derek Reed said the plan doesn’t seem feasible.

“It feels rushed, and it feels like it’s not as well thought out as it’s being presented,” he said. 

Reed said he didn’t understand why the district would abandon the work and training that teachers have done up until this point to create a robust online experience.

“Kids and parents and teachers just really got the hang, and in the groove, of how we’re doing online schooling, why are we making such a drastic switch?” 

Reed called the district’s shift in its decision-making process “disturbing.” 

But other teachers, like Kelly Shrein at Northwood Elementary, were thrilled at the news of returning to in-person learning. Shrein said she is ready to go back. 

“I’m much more excited about using my energy every day with my students teaching in person versus staring at a screen and creating videos and slides for hours.”

While no plan will be perfect, she said, she trusts the district and the city to prioritize health and safety without neglecting the mental health and academic needs of students, needs that she said cannot be addressed through a screen. 

“Their education aids in their health and well-being,” Shrein said. “Considering they’ve been out of school since March and winter is right around the corner, I think the importance of having them back soon, can’t be understated.”