By WIN GRUENING
If you haven’t bookmarked this website, you should: CovidActNow.org.
It shows that while Alaska is experiencing increasing Covid risk levels, this is mostly due to surging case levels in selected areas.
Each Alaska school district determines its current Covid risk level. A “one-size fits all” approach makes little sense when Covid-19 statistics vary widely among different regions and communities.
Yet, while Capital City risk levels have remained relatively low, classrooms have remained off-limits to most students for 7 months. There has been little urgency to get students back. This, despite CDC guidelines and mounting evidence that the damage to students far outweighs potential re-opening risks from coronavirus.
Some Alaska school districts recognized this, opening with in-person classes while allowing families to opt for distance learning if desired.
Initially, the Juneau School District announced starting school with a hybrid model – a mixture of in-person and distance learning. Just weeks before school began, those plans were scrapped in favor of all-remote learning.
Juneau’s announcement explained their decision was made in consideration of evolving guidance from state education and city health officials. Their plan, SMART START 2020, was “designed to be a moving scale with decisions made dependent on current conditions”. It considers “many complicating factors and will continue to evolve as [it progresses] in the coming weeks.”
This week Juneau school officials began considering a re-opening plan. But, unlike other school districts that have re-opened, JSD’s plan contains no objective criteria for determining when in-person classes will resume. This leaves parents and students at the whim of district officials who cannot articulate when it’s “safe” to return.
The 44-school Kenai School District re-opened their schools in September. The district’s own Covid-19 dashboard monitors each community’s numbers across their district and objectively rates its risk environment based on case counts and trends.
Kenai’s Covid numbers are higher than Juneau’s, however, mitigation measures keep students in classrooms whenever possible. Occasionally, temporary school closures are necessary, but parents and students at least know why.
Juneau’s teachers union objects to returning to work until it’s absolutely safe. Does that mean when a vaccine is available, and students and staff have been inoculated? That’s unlikely to happen before the end of the 2020-2021 school year, at the earliest.
Can any district afford the damaging social, emotional, and economic effects of keeping students at home indefinitely?
Just this month, after a gathering in Massachusetts, The Great Barrington Declaration, authored by three noted infectious disease epidemiologists and public health scientists, has gained some 15,000 signatures from the world’s medical and health community. The declaration calls for a smart alternative to lockdowns and social-distancing rules that are crippling our country and preventing our schools from opening.
This last week, The World Health Organization announced that it no longer recommends economic lockdowns to fight the novel coronavirus, effectively reversing its long-held position.
In Anchorage, where Covid-19 cases are surging and in-person classes have been postponed again, School Superintendent Deena Bishop delivered a passionate plea to the school board to consider the negative impacts on students. “We are not doing a good job of educating our young people with distance delivery,” she said.
Bishop said Anchorage likely won’t be at “medium-risk” for coronavirus spread for at least a year and “we cannot wait a year to educate our children in buildings.” She became emotional when saying, “COVID is killing our children in more ways than one. And we need to stand for children today.”
Bishop’s comments underscore the difficulties inherent in virtual education. Remote learning, especially for earlier grades, is a lousy substitute for in-classroom instruction. Younger children require monitoring and continuity of instruction as well as help navigating required technology. Parents forced to stay at home with their children are often ill-equipped to provide it.
Parents are finding that virtual instruction is, at best, disappointing, at worst, unacceptable.
In Juneau high schools, teaching only four days of classes per week, the district may not reach the state-mandated 900 hours of academic year instruction. Quality of instruction can vary widely depending on the experience and comfort level a teacher has with remote delivery. Actual instruction may last only 20-30 minutes, after which students are on their own to continue studying. Teachers sometimes read directly from textbooks, surmising many students won’t complete reading assignments. Some students have yet to meet their teachers and some “hands-on” classes, like shop, may be just another “study period” with no instruction.
Lacking needed structure and teacher engagement, more students are failing classes. Thus some families have opted for home schooling, private tutoring, or established correspondence courses.
Bars, banks, restaurants, hairdressers, and grocery, liquor and marijuana stores are open, all apparently essential. Even Juneau’s high school football team has been practicing.
Aren’t schools at least as essential as these activities?
The success of the mitigation strategies of the communities that believe schools are essential demonstrates that students and teachers can be kept safe.
The sooner we open our schools, the better.
Win Gruening retired as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in 2012. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is active in community affairs as a 30-plus year member of Juneau Downtown Rotary Club and has been involved in various local and statewide organizations.