Concerns about in-person learning reach Anchorage Assembly

A female teacher points to a word projected on a white board in a classroom with three students sitting a tables facing the front of the classroom
Aurora Elementary teacher Brianna Lundberg helps second graders sound out words during the after school tutoring program in Anchorage on October 23, 2020. (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

Concerns about the Anchorage School District’s plan to bring young and higher-need students back into classrooms next month have reached the Anchorage Assembly.

Assembly members say they’re receiving dozens of emails from parents and teachers on both sides of the issue, some who want in-person instruction to resume and others who don’t. Plus, they say, they’re hearing from people who also want the city’s governing body to weigh in.

“I’ve heard from my constituents that they’re concerned about opening the schools at all, with the rising cases of COVID-19, and feeling like that is not a safe choice,” said Assemblyman Kameron Perez-Verdia. 

“And,” he said, “I’ve also heard from my constituents that they are very concerned that schools are not opening soon enough, and the effect that’s having on their children.”

RELATED: Tutoring programs give a window into what reopened Anchorage schools may look like

As the number of coronavirus cases in Anchorage continues to soar, the Assembly Health Policy Committee has invited district administrators and Anchorage School Board members to its next meeting, on Wednesday, to explain the schooling plan and answer questions.

“What measures are in place in terms of personal protective equipment for teachers?” said Assemblywoman Meg Zaletel, a co-chair of the committee. 

“What kind of expectation should parents have for their kids when they go back? What will classrooms look like? What guidance have teachers been given on spacing children?” 

Zaletel said with community transmission rates so high, she’s concerned that opening schools will further strain the municipality’s already-stretched response capabilities. 

“Are we going to tax municipal resources, particularly around contact tracing, and then healthcare capacity, if we introduce large gatherings that are students?” she said.

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Perez-Verdia, a former president of the Anchorage School Board, said he’s hearing from constituents who want the Assembly to review the school district’s plan.

“I think they’re feeling like the direction of the district from their perspective is not in line with what they want. And so they’re looking for another way to influence that,” he said.

The Assembly traditionally stays out of school decisions. And it would not have the power to override the school district’s reopening, according to municipal attorney Kate Vogel. However, Vogel said, the mayor’s emergency powers do allow the mayor to shut down schools “when necessary to preserve life in the municipality.” Those emergency powers are currently set to expire at the end of next month, though the Assembly could vote to extend them.

Asked on Wednesday if she would consider stepping in to stop in-person instruction at the Anchorage School District, Acting Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson did not say yes or no, but said that the administration has been in conversation with the district about potential city-wide hunker-down measures. 

At most, the Assembly could pass a resolution encouraging Quinn-Davidson to step in to keep schools closed. But Perez-Verdia expressed doubts that would happen.

“That feels a little bit outside our role,” he said, adding that the Assembly has traditionally left decisions like this to the school district and school board. “I tend to have faith that the school board has more information than we do as it relates to the needs of schools and parents, and teachers and school employees.”

Zaletel remains more open to potentially stepping in. 

“It may feel like an overstep and an overreach, and I hear that concern,” she said. “But if there are going to be significant impacts to the municipal response to COVID-19, then I think it is fully within the Assembly and the administration’s purview to assess the situation and weigh in.”

In mid-October, the school district announced the plan to resume in-person learning for students in pre-K through second grade starting Nov. 16. Higher-needs, special education students through sixth grade will return to classrooms that same day.

Despite rising COVID-19 case numbers since then, the district says it’s continuing with its timeline to get some students back into classrooms. 

Superintendent Deena Bishop has said the district has plans in place to reduce the risk of spreading the virus, including requiring face masks. She has said the impacts of continuing online learning are too serious for some students, including widening achievement gaps, deteriorating mental health and inadequate nutrition.

The district shut down in-person learning in March, and has held all classes online since then. Meanwhile, some private schools in the city have brought students back to classrooms.

Zaletel said opening Anchorage School District classrooms to thousands of students would send a mixed message, given the municipality’s recent pleas with residents to take public health precautions seriously, or risk overwhelming hospital capacity.

She said she’d like to see more communication between the school district and the Assembly on the issue of schools reopening, which she said will affect the entire community.

“Right now, it’s been the municipality’s on one side kind of doing their thing, and ASD’s been over doing their thing. And I know there’s been conversation between the municipality and the school district, but let’s have a coordinated effort focused on our kids,” she said.

RELATED: Anchorage residents urged to stay home, reconsider travel plans as COVID-19 cases hit record highs

School Board President Elisa Vakalis said she’s looking forward to working further with the Assembly and the mayor, including discussing the district’s plan for in-person instruction.

“So that we can all come to the table together and come up with the best answer for kids,” she said.

As for the district’s current plan, Vakalis said she still supports bringing a portion of students back into classrooms. She said she understands and hears the concerns from the community, but believes schools will have effective safety and mitigation protocols in place. And, she said, online learning is really not working for some.

“We get the stories, and, you know, the emails, where families are just struggling,” she said. “Whether it is the loss of income, because a parent has to stay home, or they’re having to do the homework with their kids at 9 o’clock at night after they get home from work, or they don’t have the bandwidth for all of their kids.” 

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Vakalis said students can also opt out of in-person learning and continue their schooling online.

The Health Policy Committee meeting is scheduled for Nov. 4 at 10 a.m.