Staffing concerns drove Anchorage superintendent to postpone opening schools

An empty conference room
The empty Anchorage School District board room on March 13, 2020. (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop says staffing concerns within the school district and within the city’s health care system drove her decision to postpone in-person learning for students in pre-K to second grade and special education students.

“It isn’t something I wanted to do,” Bishop said. “But understanding the staffing levels at our hospitals, I’m not going to put them in a bind.”

Bishop discussed the call to delay bringing thousands of students back into school buildings in an interview Monday, the day after the district announced the postponement. Monday night, Anchorage School Board members debated when and how to reattempt in-person learning as the pandemic continues.

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Bishop said she’d like to see students return to classrooms as soon as possible, but there are many factors the district needs to consider. 

“There are asks out there right now to just call it good until January and it’s just difficult for me to consider that knowing that everyday lost in the classroom is a day lost in the classroom,” she said.

Still, she said, she needs to account for staffing schools.

Bishop said there’s been an uptick in the number of ASD employees who report being exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19, and are now being forced to quarantine.

Across Anchorage, the number of coronavirus cases is exploding. The number of hospitalizations due to COVID-19 has been slowly increasing over the last several weeks. Inpatient and ICU bed capacity is at a “yellow” or medium level, according to the Anchorage Health Department. Bishop said medical professionals in Anchorage have made it clear to the district that staffing the beds they have available is already a strain.

On Monday, Bishop said the district is still equipped and ready to teach in person when that’s possible. The district had ordered thousands of masks, protective barriers and other protective equipment for classrooms, staff were being trained and schools each had their own mitigation plan.

She said remote learning doesn’t provide the same quality of education as face-to-face in most cases. Bishop is concerned that out of the classroom, younger students won’t gain fundamental skills like reading and could lag behind for the rest of their education, or even their lives. 

What she’s trying to avoid by pushing in-person classes is a “COVID-19-lost generation,” she said.

“I don’t want it to be a criticism on teachers. When I say that we failed our children, it is a ‘we’ collectively as a society. Certainly our teachers who are left with having to operate from home are doing their absolute best,” she said.

The Anchorage School Board, parents and teachers are split on the issue of face-to-face classes as COVID-19 cases reached new highs in Alaska over the weekend. Saturday marked the first time the state’s daily case count surpassed 600 and health officials warn Alaska could reach its hospital capacity by the end of the month. 

At a special school board meeting on Monday, members debated how and when to give reopening another go. Some felt reopening was too risky while COVID-19 cases remain high, while others echoed Bishop’s stance that children should return to in-person school as soon as possible. 

Board member Andy Holleman said the district ought to have some kind of defined threshold or metric that the city needs to reach before reopening in-person classes. With the uncertainty that led up to Sunday’s decision, he said, “I think a lot of people felt like it was more of a black box thing that they couldn’t tell what might happen that would influence it one way or the other.”

But Bishop emphasized that there’s no one number to watch — it’s a combination of factors like contact tracing, hospital bed and staffing capacity, as well as the academic, social and emotional needs of kids and their families. 

“The request is to have it be black and white. I’m afraid that COVID is so new and the nuances of the decisions are really complex, that when one decision is made, it moves another trigger and another lever.” 

Class and racial inequity has been another concern around both paths forward. Bishop said ASD has provided academic support resources for students at home and expanded health resources for students and their families to mitigate the risk of returning to schools.

Even so, Celeste Hodge Growden, president of the Alaska Black Caucus, testified at Monday’s meeting, the risks presented by in-person classes would have an outsized impact on marginalized communities. 

“Within the Black and Indigenous people of color community, if our children get infected, they can spread the disease to family members, which include parents and grandparents with pre-existing conditions,” she said. “As we know, systemic health disparities and social inequities have put people from [non-white] racial and ethnic groups at increased risk for dying from COVID-19.”

Close to 50 people, mostly parents and teachers, testified at the meeting with mixed opinions on reopening schools or keeping them closed. The majority of teachers who testified applauded the decision to postpone.

“We need to acknowledge that ASD’s workforce is representative of society at large, meaning about a third of us are highly vulnerable [to COVID-19],” said Thomas Pease, a Language Arts teacher at Mears Middle School. “We need to place a higher value on long term human health care than we do on short term standard test scores.”

Board member Starr Marsett criticized teachers who have spoken out against the district’s plan to send kids back to classrooms. “Doctors, nurses, grocery store workers, they have concerns too, and they don’t have the option of saying ‘I’m not coming to work.’ So as a board member, I think we need to hold our staff accountable for coming to work when we need them.”