Alaska school reopening plans left to districts as state orders 150,000 face masks

Published: Jul. 23, 2020 at 5:22 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Alaska’s plans to reopen schools during the COVID-19 pandemic will be left to individual school districts and local communities, the state education commissioner said.

“We are empowering communities to make those decisions in cooperation with their local health officials,” said Commissioner Michael Johnson of the Department of Education. If school districts don’t have local health officials, state officials will give guidance.

In response to COVID health concerns, the education department recently ordered roughly 150,000 face masks, one for every student and school staff member across Alaska.

“When we found out FEMA was offering that, we jumped on it. And those will be shipped out directly to school districts,” Johnson said.

The face masks were offered at no cost to Alaska.

The education commissioner doesn’t have the authority to implement a mask mandate for Alaska’s schools. The governor could order that students and staff wear masks at schools but Jeff Turner, a spokesperson for the governor, said that decision would be left to individual school districts.

During a House Education Committee hearing held on Thursday, lawmakers heard from Tom Klaaymeyer, the president of NEA-Alaska, as he discussed the results of a survey of over 3,500 union members.

“Fully half of our members indicated that they are very uncomfortable with a full reopening,” Klaaymeyer said. Close to half of members support reopening schools using an online teaching model.

The Education Department is aware of the fears facing teachers across Alaska. “We can be passionate about getting school started and also recognize that there is fear and concern,” Johnson said.

With rising COVID cases, Anchorage School District will likely begin the school year teaching online. Juneau School District is currently planning for a blended model that would see some in-person teaching and some distance education.

Kerry Boyd, the superintendent of the Yukon-Koyukuk School District, said applications for homeschooling had recently doubled. The start of the school year will also be delayed as many teachers arriving from outside the region will need to quarantine for two weeks before starting class.

All districts will broadly follow the state’s school COVID reopening plans that allow for adjustments to be made how students are taught, depending on rising or falling case numbers.

Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, told the House Education Committee about some concerns in keeping kids out of the classroom. Zink cited research from the American Academy of Pediatrics that strongly advised that schools try to teach in-person, wherever possible during the pandemic.

“Lengthy time away from school and associated interruption of supportive services often results in social isolation, making it difficult for schools to identify and address important learning deficits as well as child and adolescent physical or sexual abuse, substance use, depression, and suicidal ideation,” the academy’s advice reads.

Copyright 2020 KTUU. All rights reserved.

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