Anchorage School District plans to reopen classrooms for younger students next month

An empty hallway in an elementary school
Northwood Elementary in Anchorage is pretty much empty on the first day of school, Aug. 20, 2020. Students and teachers started the school year online because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

The Anchorage School District now plans to bring students in pre-K through second grade back into classrooms starting Nov. 16, as well as higher-needs, special education students through sixth grade.

The district announced the latest plan in an email to families Thursday. 

The news comes as the number of coronavirus infections in Anchorage surges, with projections that cases will continue to climb if Alaskans don’t change their behavior.

Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop acknowledged the high number of coronavirus cases in her email Thursday, but said keeping kids out of classrooms is having too grave an impact on their mental health and learning. 

The school year started Aug. 20 with all classes online. 

“As we continue into month seven of this global pandemic it is becoming abundantly clear that not having our students in schools is taking a toll — a toll on our students’ learning outcomes, a toll on their mental and emotional well-being, and a toll on our entire community,” said Bishop’s email. 

“We’ve reached a tipping point in weighing the various criteria and considerations for holding in-person school.”

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

In an interview Thursday evening, Bishop said the district decided to bring younger students back first because their class sizes are smaller, and because they need to learn to read.

“When students do not have a healthy grade-level ability to read by third grade, they generally never do, and they will struggle the rest of their educational career,” she said.

Students will return to classrooms five days a week, face masks will be required and the school day will be an hour shorter than normal, Bishop said.

She said the district is working with state and local health officials, and their advice prompted the district to create the new plan to bring back a smaller group of students next month.

Previously, the district had planned to bring all elementary students back into classrooms on Oct. 19. But, two weeks ago, Bishop decided to push back that start date because of an increase in coronavirus cases in the city. 

Corey Aist, president of the Anchorage Education Association teachers union, said he doesn’t understand what changed between then and now to signify that in-person learning should resume. 

If anything, he said, the coronavirus pandemic has only worsened in the city. 

He said he received hundreds of concerned phone calls and emails from union members in response to Thursday’s announcement. Teachers are worried about their safety and their students’ safety, and some don’t trust the district’s plan, he said. They don’t know what metrics are informing it. 

“They want to go back and be with their students. They want to be in the classrooms. And they just are concerned that this is not the right time to do it,” Aist said. “The pandemic is growing in intensity and spread.” 

Aist said he knows online learning is not ideal, and that students are struggling. But, given the state of the coronavirus, he suggested the district put more resources toward online learning for now. 

He said he’s also concerned about the disruption and fear the coronavirus could cause in classrooms if infections inside schools continuously prompt closures. 

There’s anxiety already, he said. 

“Every couple of days, I get another educator who emails me and says, ‘I can’t do this anymore, I want to resign,’” he said. 

Bishop said human resources will work with employees who don’t want to return to classrooms.

The school district’s virtual school and other at-home options will continue, she said.

She said the district can hold in-person classes safely with the proper plans in place. The district knows much more about the virus now than it did back in March when classrooms first closed, she said. And, she said, the district must also consider the other pressing health needs of students.

“The deterioration of their social-emotional health is a key challenge,” she said.

“I don’t believe we can wait for this virus to end. Even with vaccines, we will continue to have COVID present. We need to give our kids an education,” she said. 

“The gap is just widening between the haves and the have nots.”

Already, the district has tutoring programs and learning groups operating in its schools, she said.

Additionally next month, on Nov. 16, the district plans to bring back the high-needs students enrolled at the Whaley School. 

Bishop said how school goes for the younger and higher-needs students will dictate when the district brings back other grades.

Here is the full email to Anchorage School District families: 

Oct. 15, 2020

Dear ASD Families,

As we continue into month seven of this global pandemic it is becoming abundantly clear that not having our students in schools is taking a toll — a toll on our students’ learning outcomes, a toll on their mental and emotional well-being, and a toll on our entire community. We’ve reached a tipping point in weighing the various criteria and considerations for holding in-person school. Recently, it has become clear that the long-term benefits of conducting face-to-face instruction are pushing against the understood risks of COVID-19 for our students. 

On Nov. 16, we will begin in-person school for all Pre-K through Grade 2 students as well as self-contained special education students in Pre-K through Grade 6. Our return to in-person school will be five days a week, five-and-a-half hours per day, from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Additionally, the Whaley School will open for all students on Nov. 16 from 8:10 a.m. to 1:50 p.m. These students are best served by face-to-face, fundamental skill instruction and are most adaptable to the necessary health and safety protocols.

ASD students, particularly our youngest elementary and self-contained special education students, are missing out on essential foundational skills. While our teachers, administrators, and support staff have put tremendous amounts of time and energy into innovative online learning methods, our current approach cannot provide the results our students deserve.

This is not to take away from the unprecedented efforts and successes we have experienced. Our teachers and staff are working harder and longer hours than ever before. Parents have rearranged their families’ lives to accommodate at-home learning. Yet, it is clear we are not meeting the needs of all our students. Declining achievement on learning data, the doubling of failing grades, reports of self-harm, and other social and emotional challenges underscore the struggles our teachers, students, and parents are having this school year.

After much dialogue with State and Municipal medical experts, direct feedback from school administrators and teachers, data on student learning outcomes, and most certainly input from parents and students, it is time to get kids back into schools in a gradual, controlled, and safe manner. Even though we are currently in the highest risk category for community transmission, in-person school is the right thing to do for our students and for our community given our knowledge of the virus and the mitigation protocols to keep our students and staff healthy while in school.

We continue to work closely with principals to finalize the plans at each school, and those will be shared in the coming weeks. The ASD website will also be updated with the latest District-wide information. As we adjust to being back in school, we will make the determination on when to bring the remainder of our elementary students back, followed by middle and high school. I have full confidence in our school leadership and educators to implement plans and procedures to get our students back in school safely.

In the coming weeks, we will share detailed information, school by school, on a variety of subjects, in a variety of ways (i.e. video, written documents, website, social media, etc.) related to getting our students and staff back into our buildings. That information will include, but is not limited to:

o    Health and Safety Mitigation to include mask and PPE guidance

o    Cleaning & Sanitization

o    Transportation

o    Student Nutrition

o    COVID Incident Reporting

o    Human Resource info for staff

o    Information Technology

We are also planning to expand our small-group, in-school programs across the District over the next two weeks. We have had great success through our volunteer, reading-tutor program at six neighborhood schools, community-sponsored learning PODs in our schools, and other tutoring programs for targeted groups. Feedback from our educators and families surrounding these face-to-face learning opportunities has been overwhelmingly positive. These programs have also served to validate our health and safety protocols. 

The District knows and respects that ASD families will have to make decisions about returning their students to the classroom. Our goal is to provide the most complete information to allow families to make informed decisions, whether they choose to return, opt for ASD Virtual, or choose another at-home option. Clearly, this is a very challenging time for everyone. Thank you for your patience and continued commitment to educating all students for success in life.   

Sincerely,

Deena M. Bishop Ed.D.

Superintendent