‘We are horrified’: Anchorage teachers, parents blast plan to return younger students to classrooms

An empty hallway in an elementary school
Northwood Elementary in Anchorage was nearly empty on the first day of school, Aug. 20, 2020. The school year started with all classes online. (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

Anchorage School District teacher and parent Michelle Foss told school board members Tuesday night that she strongly opposes the plan to bring younger and high-needs students back into classrooms next month.

“With the number of COVID-19 cases in the Anchorage municipality placing us firmly in the high-risk red level, we can’t comprehend how you are even contemplating bringing anyone back to face-to-face learning,” Foss told the Anchorage School Board. “We are horrified that you are even considering this.” 

Foss joined dozens of others Tuesday who spoke to the board directly, or sent in written comments, decrying the school district’s plan to bring thousands of kids back into buildings in November.

The number of coronavirus infections is surging in the city and across the state. Some of the testifiers said they are mad about the plan to return students to classrooms, while others said they are scared.

“Now is not the time to return to school buildings and endanger the lives of our students and staff,” wrote Jan Konkler, a physical education teacher.

“How can you justify only protecting some of our students and not all of our students? Who made you God?” elementary teacher Monique Duggins asked the board. “As a woman with underlying health conditions, I am furious because I feel like I don’t matter as much as a middle or high school staff member.”

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The comments come on the heels of Superintendent Deena Bishop’s announcement last week that students in pre-K through second grade will return to in-person learning starting Nov. 16. Higher-needs special education students through sixth grade will also go back to in-person classes that same day.

Bishop said online learning isn’t working for many students, and keeping kids out of classrooms is having too grave an impact on their mental health and learning. She said that with the right plan and safety measures in place, the school district can safely resume in-person teaching.

“It is not a carte blanche opening with freedom to do whatever,” Bishop told the board Tuesday. “The mitigation and the safety protocols are paramount. It is a measured movement back into school.”

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Bishop said the school district knows much more about the virus now than it did when in-person learning stopped in March. Just as restaurants, hospitals, movie theaters and other businesses have learned to operate during the pandemic, she said, the Anchorage School District can too. In other cities, she said, including New York, kids are returning to classrooms. 

“If we don’t prioritize schooling, I don’t know what we’re about,” Bishop said.

But some teachers and parents said Tuesday that they don’t trust the district’s plan, and they think it’s impossible to keep students spread far enough apart in classrooms to limit the spread of COVID-19.

They said cycling students and teachers into and out of quarantines as virus cases are identified, as is happening in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and on the Kenai Peninsula, will be too disruptive and also harm kids’ mental health. 

“This is the time to maintain the continuity of learning that’s been established. Students have learned the routines online,” said Kate Ladd, an elementary teacher and parent. “And while they’re not perfect, they’re reaching the majority of the district’s students.” 

Many also asked how many coronavirus cases are too many for the district to hold in-person school, given that the current number of infections far exceeds the requirements in standards used by the district earlier this school year.

Anchorage reported 115 new coronavirus infections Tuesday. That put it at about 33 coronavirus infections per 100,000 residents, and at a high-alert level for community transmission.

Bishop did not provide a number Tuesday that would trigger a switch back to online learning once kids return to classrooms. It’s more complicated than that, she said.

“I don’t know how to create a matrix on human lives due to loss (from) suicides. I don’t know how to create a matrix of family’s despair,” she said. “I don’t know what numbers to put on a matrix of the sadness and suffering that’s going on.” 

Bishop said the district is moving forward with its plan to bring kids back into classrooms, and has consulted with state and local health officials. She noted that school sports resumed this fall, and the district has held a reading tutoring program in some schools, and neither has triggered coronavirus outbreaks.

Bishop said families can still choose to complete the school year virtually. She said the district does not have any dates yet for in-person learning to resume for older students.

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