With no COVID-19 spread in schools, Anchorage prepares for older students’ return to classrooms

A display board with a yellow background listing steps for proper handwashing in bright colors
A classroom at Aurora Elementary was turned into a nurses station, with instructions for proper hand washing displayed on a display board. Students have put the words to music to help them remember. (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

Anchorage School District students are returning from spring break on Monday. For some of them, it will be their first time back in the classroom in a year.

The state’s largest school district is re-starting in-person learning for middle and high schoolers Monday. Elementary school students returned to classrooms in January.  

RELATED: Anchorage school officials say students’ meals will continue, with changes, amid shift to in-person learning 

It’s still unclear exactly how many older students will be back in schools next week, said Ashley Lally, ASD’s Director of Security and Emergency Preparedness.

“I was at East yesterday, and they sent out a survey to their families to try to plan and figure out how many are going to come back,” Lally said Wednesday. “Out of 1,700, only 500 families responded. So, they actually have no idea how many (will return). It could be everyone and it could be no one, so they’re kind of planning for all options.”

However, Lally said that same uncertainty existed when in-person learning resumed for younger students earlier this year: In January, 8,000 students initially returned to classrooms. About a month later, that grew to around 14,000. 

As for COVID-19 cases in schools, Lally said there haven’t been many.

Lally tracks every coronavirus case reported to the district. She’s the one coordinating with nurses, teachers and administrators to tell families when students can return to school, as well as flagging potential clusters or links between cases, and updating the district’s COVID-19 tracker online.

Since in-person learning resumed in January, Lally said there hasn’t been any COVID spread in schools: No school has had to close completely because of infection. But several individual classrooms across the district are typically closed at any given time because of COVID cases, she said. 

RELATED: Fears dissipate, horizons expand after one month of in-person learning in Anchorage classroom 

Lally expects the number of cases reported to the district to grow as more people return to school buildings. But she said she’s drawing on the past two months of experience with elementary students to prepare. The reporting and tracking process is running smoothly at the elementary level now and Lally expects the same to happen at the secondary level. 

“I was totally anticipating it being chaos for the first two weeks and it was not the case and it never really got to that point,” Lally said. “So, I kind of just keep reminding myself that, because I’ve kind of been dreading next week, but I actually think that it’s probably going to go just as well as our return back in January.”

While the district’s mitigation strategies appear to be working, Lally said the state offering COVID-19 vaccines to all adult Alaskans is also good news for the district. 

“That’s exciting too, because if you’re fully vaccinated, you don’t have to quarantine if you’re in close contact,” Lally said. “So as we get more and more staff and then even students vaccinated, I think that’s also going to help to just contain the spread and keep our kids in school.”

In absence of state travel restrictions, which have expired in Alaska, ASD has implemented its own travel guidance. The guidance says all staff and students who travel outside of the state must submit a negative COVID-19 test before returning to school or work. 

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