For Anchorage School District, style of school start is moving target

ASD officials said earlier this summer that a plan was in place to start with in-person classes on a limited schedule
The Anchorage School District holds a public board meeting on July 21, 2020.
The Anchorage School District holds a public board meeting on July 21, 2020.(KTUU)
Published: Jul. 21, 2020 at 7:38 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - With the start of school for Anchorage students just around the corner, the district and its school board members are now tasked with making a final decision for the format of school’s start on a crunched deadline. So far, the district has settled on one major part of the plan: Its final decision over a setup is in flux, but that’s by design.

The district released on Friday its risk level decision matrix, which will be used to determine which risk level it operates under according to its own risk level response plan.

“That will let you know what risk category we’re in, and how we’re making those decisions,” said ASD Superintendent Dr. Deena Bishop at Tuesday’s meeting. “The probability of moving into a high risk category is pretty high, simply because we are using the date.”

The last plan formally announced by ASD was a two-day, in-person start beginning in late August, as announced on July 9. At that time, the average was 18 cases a day over two weeks. Now, that two-week average is at about 27 new cases per day.

Earlier Tuesday, Bishop said it was ”likely” that school would begin for students in August under a fully online format.

The board meeting Tuesday was met with ample public comment, primarily focused on the district’s reopening plans for the fall. While the decision over the school start will not come to a vote, the board said it will be providing feedback and input to the district based largely on public testimony.

At least 50 people had signed up to testify just minutes into the meeting, the majority of them in favor of starting school fully online or at least delayed, and others favoring an in-person option. Many of the people submitting comment were teachers within the Anchorage School District. Most of the early contributors said they did not want to see school start in person, let alone as early as August.

“There are no easy answers,” said Ben Walker, a science teacher and ASD Teacher of the Year for 2018 who said school should be pushed back at least two weeks beyond Labor Day. “I don’t want anyone to die because of public schools. Rhetoric and politics is trying to force schools to open in a pandemic.

“Teachers, staff and families will be first to suffer,” he said. “To me, this is all backwards. We have the ability to slow this down and do this right.”

Daniel Kemp, another teacher, said he wants classes to be taught in person, but that now isn’t the time to do it.

“I care for my children at school and their education,” he said. “I understand there’s no comparison to in-person learning. I truly want to return to the classroom, but we can’t reopen school right now. It’s just too dangerous.”

Another teacher, who said she’s 72 years old and still teaching, said she’s concerned not only about school possibly starting in person but also how the district might choose who to send to in-person classes. On top of that, she said, she’s unsure how students would be taken care of if schools opened in the fall.

“I’ve been to four student funerals in my career,” she said. “Four is a staggering number of dead kids. So is one.”

They were all backed by the opinion of the teachers’ union, the Anchorage Education Association, the president of which also testified at Tuesday’s meeting.

“We unanimously believe returning to our schools in person is not supported by data, which indicates the spread of COVID-19 in Anchorage,” said AEA President Corey Aist. “That’s our love, passion: Teaching, with the unified goal of maximizing student achievement. Let us not allow the ultimate safety of our children and staff fall to decisions made for political gain.”

The school district has maintained that its options for starting the school year are based on data, including statistics and infection rates from both the State of Alaska Department of Health and Social Services and the Municipality of Anchorage.

If public testimony is not completed by midnight, the board can vote to extend the meeting if it so chooses.

The full schedule for upcoming board meetings can be found on the ASD website.

This story is being updated. Please check back for details.

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