Anchorage School District still plans to resume in-person learning for younger students on Nov. 16

A female school nurse directs students in proper handwashing technique
Students at Aurora Elementary School in Anchorage sing a song about proper handwashing techniques on Oct. 23, 2020. Aurora is one of the schools in the Anchorage School District holding after-school tutoring. (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

The Anchorage School District still plans to resume in-person learning in about two weeks for its younger and higher-needs special education students.

That’s according to an email Superintendent Deena Bishop sent Sunday evening to families. Bishop is sending the email updates on the status of schooling on the first and 15th of every month. Sunday’s update comes as the number of known coronavirus cases continues to skyrocket in the city, and as the district faces criticism from some for its decision to bring kids back to classrooms given the state of the pandemic.

Bishop defended the district’s plan to resume in-person learning in Sunday’s message.

“I acknowledge the range of opinions around this decision and the valid concerns surrounding the rise in cases in our community,” she wrote. “However, I am convinced by growing evidence in our own District and across the country that students’ learning outcomes and other important social emotional needs are better served when they are physically in schools.”

RELATED: Concerns about in-person learning reach Anchorage Assembly

Bishop first announced in mid-October that the school district would resume in-person instruction for students in pre-K through 2nd grade at its roughly five dozen elementary schools on Nov. 16. Higher-needs special education students through sixth grade go back the same day, as well as students at the Whaley School.

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

In Sunday’s email, Bishop wrote that families can choose whether to send students back to in-person school. Those who don’t want to return should enroll in the ASD Virtual Program, she wrote. Or, if families want to wait to decide, a team of teachers and principals are finalizing a plan for video-based reading and math lessons.

Also, Bishop wrote, the district will post on its website each elementary school’s health and safety plan for in-person instruction by Wednesday. Teachers and staff will be trained on the new protocols during an in-service day on Tuesday. 

“We understand the risks, and though we cannot eliminate them, we have gone to great lengths to plan for mitigation,” Bishop wrote. 

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

Bishop asked families with children in pre-K through second grade to fill out a survey sent by principals about whether they’ll return to in-person instruction. Those answers will help schools make decisions on staffing and measures to keep students further apart, Bishop wrote.

Anchorage families, Alaska Public Media wants to hear from you. What are your thoughts and questions about the Anchorage School District’s plan to resume in-person learning? Email reporter Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@alaskapublic.org

Here’s the full email from Superintendent Deena Bishop on Sunday:

Dear ASD Families,

The Anchorage School District is moving forward with its plan to bring students in Pre-K – Grade 2, the Whaley School, and elementary self-contained special education programs back into school buildings on November 16 for those families ready to get back to face-to-face education. 

I want to be clear that parents have a choice in whether they send their student(s) back to in-person school. To that point, teams are working to expand learning opportunities as we seek to support the needs of all our students and families. While many parents have expressed a strong desire to get their kids back into school buildings, there are other parents who have shared they are not yet comfortable with that option. 

  • For parents who are not likely to have their children return, we recommend enrolling in the ASD Virtual program as the preferred option. The ASD Virtual option will now include the addition of daily Zoom lessons in English language arts (ELA) and math by the virtual teacher for K-5. This is an effort to better support student learning in a distance environment. 
  • For families who are enrolled in ASD in School, want to stay with their classroom teacher, and desire a “wait-and-see” approach to in-person school, a team of teachers and principals is finalizing a solution for video-based reading and math lessons to be posted in Canvas. While these video-based lessons may not be recorded by the classroom teacher, they will be available to students who are absent for a short period. More information will be forthcoming.

We understand the risks, and though we cannot eliminate them, we have gone to great lengths to plan for mitigation. Elementary principals, teachers, and support staff have worked tirelessly the last several weeks to build individualized school safety plans and procedures. These plans outline mask wearing, physical distancing, hygiene protocols, and cleaning and disinfecting, as well as guidance on school pick up/drop off, recess, and COVID case response and notification. Our teachers and staff will train on these school-specific plans during the Districtwide in-service day, November 3. Each school’s health and safety plan will be posted here by November 4. 

I acknowledge the range of opinions around this decision and the valid concerns surrounding the rise in cases in our community. However, I am convinced by growing evidence in our own District and across the country that students’ learning outcomes and other important social emotional needs are better served when they are physically in schools. During my weekly meetings with other leaders across the country, trends shared by superintendents indicate that other large districts are also opting to bring young students back in recognition of the many challenges they face with online learning. Daycare programs, preschools, and tutoring programs are presently operating in ASD schools and across the municipality, demonstrating that with mitigation measures in place, childcare and education services can safely serve children and our community.

Our school opening plan takes a slow, measured approach informed by best practices from other Alaska school districts as well as large districts around the nation. Please know that ASD’s plan is in line with Municipal mandates, which call for mask wearing, physical distancing, limited indoor gatherings, and 50 percent capacity in buildings such as restaurants, bars, gyms, and theaters. During the first part of the back to school plan, we estimate fewer than 25 percent of our total student population will occupy our 59 elementary schools. Fewer than 50 percent of students enrolled in each elementary school will be physically present during this first phase. This will allow principals and staff greater flexibility in implementing social distancing and other safety procedures.    

As superintendent, I continue to be impressed by the level of detail, innovation, and professionalism our entire staff has put forth into preparing schools for this gradual, phased-in approach to bringing students back into classrooms. Our employees’ dedication to providing the best possible education for our students continues to be unmatched. This is especially true for our principals, teachers, and other school staff in elementary schools who are preparing for a return right now.

I know there will be a learning curve for staff, students, and our families, but one thing I have witnessed in the last eight months is that the entire ASD community is adaptable and resilient. I am confident that after a few days these in-school mitigation protocols will become second nature as they have in our programs currently operating in schools.

Moving forward, I seek your assistance with our ongoing planning. To get the most accurate count of how many students will return to schools, elementary principals and staff recently sent a survey to Pre-K – Grade 2 families. The survey will provide valuable information to school administrators as they adjust staff resources and refine distancing and mitigation measures. If you are a Pre-K – Grade 2 family and haven’t taken the survey, I encourage you to do so. Please contact your school if you need the link to the online survey or other assistance.  

To prepare for a return to school, I ask that families practice wearing their masks for long periods, even while at home. Perhaps make it a game of which family member can wear their mask the longest without touching their face. If you are unable to provide masks for your child(ren), please let your principal know so that we may provide assistance if needed.

In closing, the decision to return to school serves our students who are in their formative years, where learning is critical. These students are unable to direct their own learning, at home, on a computer screen. An added benefit is that class sizes at these grade levels are already the smallest, which will assist our efforts to maintain social distancing. The ASD plan remains in accordance with our municipality’s emergency health mandates and other educational support services to children, both private and public. I am confident in, thankful for, and always impressed by ASD employees, for they have demonstrated a strong desire to support the District’s children through this entire pandemic.

It is time we, as a community, prioritize the return to school, just as we have already supported reopening efforts in other sectors of our community. Education is paramount to our collective health and well-being, and it is the foundation for continuing to build a robust economy in the Municipality of Anchorage.

Sincerely,

Deena M. Bishop, Ed.D.

Superintendent