Anchorage Schools Superintendent: ‘COVID is killing our children in more ways than one’

Images of Anchorage School Board members as they appear on a Zoom meeting.
Anchorage School Board members meet on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020. (Screenshot)

Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop provided a bleak assessment of online learning at Tuesday night’s school board meeting. 

“We are not doing a good job of educating our young people with distance delivery,” she said.

Bishop’s comments came days after she indefinitely postponed the start of in-person learning at the state’s largest school district because of a surge of COVID-19 infections in the city. 

Bishop did not provide an update Tuesday on when kids might return to Anchorage classrooms. She said Anchorage likely won’t be in “medium risk” for coronavirus spread for at least a year and “we cannot wait a year to educate our children in buildings.”

She became emotional as she discussed the impacts of tens of thousands of students continuing to learn solely online. 

“This is passion in my voice,” she said, her words strained between tears. “It is not a sign of weakness in making a decision. I’m letting you know, COVID is killing our children in more ways than one. And we need to stand for children today.”

Anchorage School Board members said online learning is crushing students’ mental health.

“I see boredom,” said board member Starr Marsett. “I see thoughts of suicide. I see grades just plummeting.”

Bishop said teachers are working harder than ever, and it’s “not about effort, it’s not about will.”

“It is about the outcomes and the reality of what’s happening to our youth,” she said.

Andy Holleman, another board member, said for some students, school buildings are the safest, cleanest and healthiest places they spend their time.

“There is no doubt in my mind that children in this town are suffering,” he said.

But, he said, the district is also in a difficult position. 

“Our buildings are something like giant lungs, where they inhale in the morning with hundreds or over 1,000 kids, and they co-mingle for a bit, and then they exhale back into the homes and apartments and wherever kids are living,” he said.

Holleman said while he wants students back in school, reopening classrooms at the wrong time could quickly push the virus through the municipality.

“Things are clearly out of control in Anchorage right now,” he said. “So I hope we stick to the plan we’ve got and stay strong.”

Deciding how to best educate students in the middle of the pandemic has drawn strong reaction from the community.

More than two dozen people gathered outside of district headquarters Tuesday with signs that read “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH” and chanting “Open our schools!” 

Protesters gather on the sidewalk in Anchorage with signs that read "Schools ARE Essential" and "Open our schools!"
More than two dozen people gathered outside of Anchorage School District headquarters on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020, to call for in-person instruction. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

Brandon Conant was one of the protestors outside with a bullhorn. He said his children need the social interaction that school provides. Also, he said, he and his wife both work full-time and it’s impossible to keep up with online schooling.

“We try to do the best we can, but there’s no way they can learn the same amount,” he said. 

But others have raised concerns about whether it’s too much of a health risk to hold in-person classes right now, and hundreds of Anchorage teachers have said they won’t return to classrooms this month.

Bishop is expected to give her next update on in-person learning on Oct. 15.

Reach reporter Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@alaskapublic.org or 907-550-8447.

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