Many Anchorage teachers say they don’t want to return to classrooms

hand sanitizer in a classroom window and people behind the window
Hand sanitizer and tissues rest on a window sill as a teacher addresses students at Redington Sr. Jr/Sr High School in Wasilla on September 21, 2020. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Questions and comments about the Anchorage School District’s reopening plan dominated the nearly five hour school board meeting Tuesday evening. 

Most of the public testimony was against school reopening and came from teachers like Ben Walker of Romig Middle School, who said he doesn’t believe it is safe to return to in-person learning. 

“What number? What number is in the green box for acceptable student, staff, and community covid infection directly from school buildings that causes lifelong debilitating conditions and even death?”

Other teachers expressed concerns about the class sizes, sanitation supplies, and ventilation systems in school buildings. 

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

Anchorage Education Association President Corey Aist presented the school board with the results of a survey of ASD teachers which he said received “unprecedented participation.” 

In a written statement, Aist said 2,161 members responded to the survey, which asked teachers their opinions on the district’s plan to reopen school buildings. “We have never had such a strong response,” Aist said. 

529 members indicated they would not return to the classroom in October, 187 members said they will resign or take leave should the proposed timetable be implemented, 1,601 members said current safeguards for face to face learning are not adequate.

According to the organization’s website, AEA has about 3,200 members. 

SEE ALSO: Mat-Su teachers authorize strike as district and union go back to bargaining table 

School Board President Elisa Vakalis said she knows of other people, whom she called a “silent majority” who feel differently. 

“For every concerned person about coming back to a classroom or a school, I’ve got another person that can’t wait to get their kids back to that in-classroom learning that they know is best for their children,” Vakalis said.

District Superintendent Deena Bishop said the district understands that the coronavirus is present in the community but the district’s goal is to mitigate the risk of spread. 

“There isn’t a promise, at all, that covid is not present in our schools or that we can keep it out.”

RELATED: ‘It has exceeded my expectations’: Here’s what in-person school looks like in Mat-Su

Bishop said the district is moving forward with preparations for in-person learning. 

ASD is offering two town hall meetings with Dr. Anne Zink about the reopening plan next week. 

Tuesday, Sept. 29, 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Wednesday, Sept. 30 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Registration is required and can be completed online here

The district also presented two studies to the board. The first indicated wealthier neighborhoods had schools with more students in the district’s virtual program which meant current classes sizes in those neighborhood schools are much smaller than schools in poorer areas. The five schools with the largest classes, upwards of 29 children, are Title I schools. The district has said the target class size for safely reopening to in-person classes is 20 students.

The second study showed 60 percent of students who participated in an assessment test this year are one or more grade levels behind in English Language Arts and 72 percent of students tested are one or more grade levels behind in Math. 

The district continues to see lower student enrollment than expected. Most of the students who left the district went to statewide homeschool programs, said Chief Financial Officer Jim Anderson. If numbers remain at their current level, that could result in a budget shortfall of $15 million dollars. That amount is down from the $26 million shortfall projected at the previous board meeting.