Anchorage School District postpones start of in-person learning

Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop at Huffman Elementary School on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020.
Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop at Huffman Elementary School on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

The Anchorage School District will no longer resume in-person learning for younger and higher-needs special education students next week.

Superintendent Deena Bishop announced Sunday night that the district has indefinitely postponed the start of in-person school because of the increasing spread of the coronavirus, and rising demands on the city’s health care system.

The delay comes as Anchorage records record-high numbers of coronavirus cases, and as the city tightens restrictions to try to get a handle on the spread of infections. In recent weeks, the district has also faced growing criticism for its decision to bring thousands of students back into school buildings given the worsening state of the pandemic. 

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In an email Sunday to district employees and families, Bishop described the decision to postpone in-person learning as heartbreaking. But, she wrote, the virus is too widespread, and has the potential to significantly reduce the district’s ability to predictably staff schools. Also, she wrote, the conditions across Anchorage already threaten to push the city’s medical capacity beyond its limits. 

“ASD remains steadfast on getting its students back into schools and will continue its plans to do so when conditions allow,” she wrote. 

This is the third time the state’s largest school district has postponed or changed plans for in-person learning this school year.

The district initially announced a plan to start the school year in August with students in classrooms two days a week. Then, as the number of coronavirus cases grew, it decided to start the year on Aug. 20 with all classes online. The district later postponed a second plan to bring all elementary school students back into classrooms in mid-October as cases in Anchorage rose even higher

Under the latest iteration of the plan, that’s now delayed, just pre-K through second grade students would have returned to school buildings on Nov. 16, as well as higher-needs special education students.

Bishop’s email did not provide a date for when in-person learning may resume. She said she’ll send out another update on Nov. 15, as well as information on additional support services for students. 

In an interview Monday, Anchorage School Board president Elisa Vakalis said she understands why Bishop had to make the decision to push back in-person learning. “But,” she said, “my heart breaks for public education today.”

Vakalis said it’s frustrating that public schools can’t resume in-person learning, while private schools and daycares can, and while restaurants, bars, gyms and other businesses remain open.

“In this moment, it is our public school kids that are suffering,” she said.

The school board is meeting at 5 p.m. Monday to discuss next steps.

In her email, Bishop asked people to help get the virus under control by wearing face masks in public, practicing good hygiene and following municipal and sate health mandates.

“If everyone does their part in reducing the spread of the virus,” she wrote, “the community will be on its way to getting students and staff back into the classroom where they love to be.”

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

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