‘I hope someone can help us’: ASD’s decision to resume in-person learning faces growing scrutiny

An empty hallway with a long corkboard on the wall that's empty as well
A hallway that would normally be full of elementary school students is empty on the first day of school, August 20, 2020, as students begin the school year entirely online. (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

The Anchorage School District is facing growing scrutiny over its decision to bring some students back into classrooms in less than two weeks.

The district is getting pressure from the teachers union to delay in-person instruction, as well as from some members of the Anchorage Assembly and School Board who question whether Nov. 16 is the right time to bring students into school buildings, with widespread virus transmission across Anchorage, public health resources already strained and some teachers saying they don’t have the resources or space to hold class safely.

“We have a public health emergency on our hands,” said School Board member Andy Holleman, referring to the city’s record-high number of coronavirus cases.

At a tense School Board meeting Tuesday night, Holleman attempted to stop the district from resuming general-education, in-person classes until January, but his effort to get the motion on the meeting’s agenda failed twice, in 3-4 votes, with those opposed saying the public needed more notice.

Anchorage School Board President Elisa Vakalis said Wednesday that she’s looking at calling a special meeting early next week to discuss whether the district should push back bringing students into classrooms. 

Meanwhile, Anchorage Assembly members are also raising their own concerns about in-person learning. At a committee meeting Wednesday morning they asked questions ranging from whether teachers can opt to continue teaching online to how staff will ensure students wear masks, when some adults in the city won’t.

RELATED: Concerns about in-person learning reach Anchorage Assembly

After the meeting, Assembly chair Felix Rivera said in an interview: “There are just too many unknowns, that’s what I’m hearing from my constituents.”

“We need to get these things hammered out before we open up,” he said. 

‘We believe that we will be ready’

School district administrators have said that if the local or state government decides to prohibit in-person learning, they will adhere to the rules.

But in the meantime, they’re pressing ahead to bring back students in pre-K through 2nd grade at about five dozen elementary schools, as well as higher-needs special education students through sixth grade and students at the Whaley School. 

Deputy Superintendent Mark Stock said the district needs to provide an in-person option for its youngest and most vulnerable students. Each elementary school has its own plan and safety procedures that the district has reviewed, he said. Staff is being trained. And the district has delivered personal protective equipment to schools, including masks, he said. 

“We believe that we will be ready,” Stock told Assembly members Wednesday. 

A variety of face masks and face shields displayed on a table at Huffman Elementary School.
The Anchorage School District displayed the variety of face masks and face shields on Monday that it said will have available for students and staff. Some teachers have said they don’t have the materials the district says they should. The district counters that it has sent the materials, but perhaps school administrators haven’t distributed them yet. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

Families who don’t want their children to return to school buildings can enroll in a virtual program, he said. There will also be a small pilot program where teachers set up cameras in their rooms so students can tune in virtually, said School District Superintendent Deena Bishop.

Bishop said keeping students out of school buildings has big consequences, including some children falling behind in reading and some having inadequate access to nutrition and mental health services. Bishop told Assembly members Wednesday that three students died by suicide in recent weeks.

School Board member Deena Mitchell later responded that “no suicides are acceptable, but we don’t know that those would not have happened had school been in service.” She said state data shows Alaska is on track to record fewer suicides among youth this year than prior years.

Mitchell said the community does need to address mental health. But, she said, “Is sending 9,000 students to school right now the answer to those issues? I don’t know.” 

‘The teachers are screaming, ‘Please do not do this’’

The Anchorage Education Association teachers union provides a starkly different view of how preparations for in-person learning is going, compared to the district administration. 

Union president Corey Aist told Assembly members that because the district has left it up to schools to create their own plans, not all classroom setups are equal. While some schools, like Huffman Elementary, have classrooms with barriers, and enough space to keep desks at least 6-feet apart, other schools do not have the resources or the room for similar mitigation measures, he said. 

Kindergarten teacher Katie McDaniel’s classroom at Huffman Elementary School on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020. McDaniel said she’s ready and excited to welcome her children back. But the local teachers union says this is not what most classrooms look like. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

Aist said he’s receiving “tons of pictures” of classrooms with desks and chairs that are too close together because teachers don’t have enough space. 

“The teachers are screaming, ‘Please do not do this,’” he said. “And I have a lot of concerns on whether staffing will even be available on the 16th if the plan is still in place.”

In an email Wednesday, school district spokesman Alan Brown said that the district is working with principals “to provide resources for barriers and other creative solutions to enable maximum distancing where six feet is not feasible.” He said the district is expecting a delivery of 15,000 plastic barriers next week.

Aist said that while all union members want to see their students in-person again, and some are ready now, a majority say November is not the right time. The number of coronavirus infections in Anchorage is too high. And, he said, Nov. 16 is less than two weeks before Thanksgiving break, when travel and gatherings are more likely, and the risk increases for virus transmission. 

Aist also asked at the recent meetings how going back into classrooms aligned with a recent public health advisory from the municipality that urges residents to avoid gatherings, and to stay home except to get food, go to work or recreate outside because of the surge in coronavirus cases. 

Teachers who testified at the School Board meeting Tuesday night also pointed to the advisory as one of many reasons they said it doesn’t make sense to resume in-person learning this month. Some testifiers described the decision to bring students back as abhorrent, reckless or “a foolish experiment.” They said online learning isn’t perfect but it’s getting better each day. They said returning to school buildings would also unfairly impact students of color. 

“The majority of my students are not white,” said Andrea Gardner, a kindergarten and first grade highly-gifted teacher at Rogers Park Elementary. “And, unfortunately, this horrible virus will affect them and their families at a much higher rate than me.”

School nurses are also pushing back. More than 40 of them signed a letter dated Tuesday and sent to school and city leaders raising concerns about in-person learning, including racial and social inequities, the impossibility to physical distance in every classroom and already-stretched public health resources, like contact tracing. They called on the district to not resume in-person learning at this time.

RELATED: Alaska Natives and Pacific Islanders are harder hit by COVID-19 in Alaska. The reasons are complex.

Teachers on Tuesday also pleaded with the district to reverse course. 

“I think this is wrong and I hope someone can help us,” said Northwood Elementary teacher Kayla Page.

‘We have transmission everywhere’ 

Bishop has not given a number of infections or a specific scenario that would prompt her to call off in-person school on Nov. 16. 

On Wednesday, Anchorage Health Department epidemiologist Janet Johnston said coronavirus cases are rising in the city, testing isn’t keeping up and hospitalizations are also increasing. 

But, she also said, she wasn’t “overly concerned about the marginal increase” the city would see in hospitalizations due to schools reopening.

“We have transmission everywhere. It’s unclear how much more transmission there’ll be with schools,” she said. “I also suspect that families where there are high-risk individuals in the households, may be less likely to send their kids back.”

While in-person class has yet to resume at the district, some employees are working in school buildings, and there are tutoring programs. Last week, the district reported 36 active coronavirus cases among staff and students, with 109 people in quarantine because of close contact with someone who tested positive. Also, four high school sports had teams or portions of teams in quarantine. 

Assemblywoman Jamie Allard said at Wednesday’s meeting that she trusts the school district’s decision to reopen schools, and has heard from teachers who do too. 

“The daycares are open, fully open, and if daycares can be open, our schools can be open,” she said.

While most people who have testified at recent School Board meetings have protested the school district’s decision to open classrooms, a few have testified that they support it, including Allie Moe, a pediatric nurse. Moe told the Board that children are not all sitting at home if they’re not in school buildings. Their risk of spreading the virus will be less in a setting with mitigation measures in place, like a classroom, she said. Education, she said, is crucial.

“The early years are so precious and short, a child’s development does not pause for a year waiting for a pandemic to end,” she told the School Board Tuesday. “This year, I’ve talked to sobbing parents and coordinated care for children with increasing behavioral and health challenges. There are many I worry about more, that we’re not hearing from.”

School Board member Starr Marsett said she’s frustrated with the city and state governments. She said it seems like they’re prioritizing opening bars, restaurants and other businesses over schools. And she questioned why the city is not taking other approaches right now to drive down case numbers.

Vakalis said the School Board’s special meeting will likely be Monday or Tuesday — just a week before in-person learning is set to resume.

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