It’s official: Anchorage School District postpones start of in-person classes

A teacher sits at her desk in a classroom full of tables and chairs but no students
Kelly Shrein and her 5th grade students at Northwood Elementary School meet online for the first day of classes Aug. 20, 2020. (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

Anchorage School District elementary students will not return to in-person classes on Oct. 19 because of an increase in COVID-19 infections in the city.

The district made the postponement official in an email to families on Thursday. School District Superintendent Deena Bishop mentioned earlier this week that a rapid increase of coronavirus infections would likely delay bringing kids back to classrooms. 

The number of new infections per 100,000 Anchorage residents during the last seven days is more than 50% higher than the week prior, according to district data.

The district does not yet have a set date to resume in-person classes, said Thursday’s email signed by Bishop.

But, she said, returning to in-person instruction is the district’s “primary goal.”

“It is readily apparent that online school options, although valuable, cannot equal the quality education, specialized services, and equity of access our students need and deserve,” the email said. “The disparity we see in our learning outcomes is growing, and the concern for our students’ mental health continues to increase.”

Anchorage’s school year started Aug. 20 with all classes online. Bishop said the district will provide another update on the status of in-person schooling on Oct. 15.

Corey Aist, president of the Anchorage Education Association, said the union supports Bishop’s decision to postpone classes because of the level of community spread of COVID-19. 

“While all the educators within the association want to be back in schools with kids, we just want to do it safely,” he said. 

Bishop said smaller programs like reading tutors will continue in school buildings, and she hopes to offer more part-time support programs. She called on Anchorage residents to help get classrooms open by wearing face masks in public, washing their hands and practicing social distancing.

So what’s driving the COVID-19 increase?

Anchorage Health Department Epidemiologist Janet Johnston said that the city’s rise in COVID-19 infections happened pretty suddenly. On Sept. 24, Anchorage recorded about 70 cases. 

“And since then,” she said, “we’ve been in like, you know, the 60, 70, we hit 80 (cases) one day. And before that, we were down again, bouncing around, but definitely more in that 20 to 50 range.”

Johnston said Anchorage continues to see increasing cases among Alaskans in their 20s and 30s, and it has also experienced recent clusters in assisted-living homes and at other congregate-housing facilities. 

“Really the density of housing is one of the things that drives the virus, because it’s much easier to spread,” she said. 

Also, Johnston said, that complacency among the public has made it easier for the virus to get into those places. 

“At this point, people know what needs to be done, and they are trying to do it,” she said. “But they’re not necessarily remembering to do it every time.” 

COVID-19 hits Anchorage high school volleyball 

The Anchorage School District also announced Thursday that it’s high school volleyball program is on hold for two weeks because of COVID-19 infections.

Bishop’s email said there’s an “increasing number of individual cases resulting in multiple team quarantines.” 

“While mitigation procedures have been successful thus far in limiting secondary exposure in our gyms and fields, ASD believes this action was necessary to prevent further spread of COVID-19 within the bubble of the volleyball program as well as the greater community,” the email said.

In early September, the district allowed its high school sports teams to move forward with full practices and games.

Alaska Public Media’s Lex Treinen contributed to reporting for this story.

Anchorage parents and teachers, we want to hear from you: What are your thoughts on delaying in-person classes? Email reporter Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@alaskapublic.org