Alaska education leaders, state officials detail preparations for new school year
ANCHORAGE – The House Education Committee today heard testimony from Alaska education leaders and state officials on the challenges ahead for schools preparing to safely teach 130,000 students amid a global pandemic.
“These are unprecedented times, and Alaska’s families, children, teachers, school districts, and Department of Education are all navigating uncharted waters,” said Rep. Harriet Drummond (D-Anchorage), co-chair of the Education Committee. “It’s reassuring that everyone understands first and foremost, our priority is the health and well-being of our children and teachers. We cannot expect our kids to learn if they do not feel safe.”
“I’m pleased to hear our superintendents and school board members have flexible plans in place to promote learning in this complicated time,” added Rep. Andi Story (D-Juneau), co-chair of the Education Committee. “Practicing social distancing, wearing a mask, and staying home if you’re sick will allow more in-person learning.”
A few of the major factors being considered by school leaders and state officials:
- Dr. Anne Zink testified that many of Alaska’s children are at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 due to pre-existing conditions and behavioral factors. Between one-third and one-half of children in our state are overweight or obese, and in 2017 10.9 percent of teenage students reported smoking in the last month and 15.7 percent reported using a vape pen. Both smoking and obesity appear to increase the likelihood of serious complications from COVID-19.
- While children typically experience less serious health effects from COVID-19, schools can become places where the disease spreads rapidly throughout a community, Dr. Zink testified.
- Commissioner Michael Johnson told lawmakers that the Department of Education and Early Development is working with individual districts to build plans for providing education at different risk levels, but the State of Alaska does not intend to issue statewide mandates on how schools can operate this fall.
- The State of Alaska is using a staged warning system, where communities are ranked as a green (low), orange (medium) and red (high) risk based on the level of local transmission. However, Dr. Zink warned that there can be a significant lag between the time transmission begins and when the alarm bells will ring and emphasized the importance of local coordination due to this lag.
- Superintendents from across the state testified to their plans to have temperature checks before students enter school each day, social distancing and mask requirements, to allow one-on-one meetings between teachers and students even if distance education is necessary, to make sure students can access school lunches even if schools close, and other steps aimed at slowing the spread and mitigating the impacts of COVID-19.
- An NEA-Alaska survey revealed that 75 percent of teachers are uncomfortable with the prospect of a full reopening of their school. Student safety, personal safety, and the safety of family members were the three main concerns raised.
- NEA-Alaska President Tom Klaameyer urged the State of Alaska to follow the advice of the scientific community to determine when it is safe for classroom instruction to resume. Communities with no identified COVID-19 cases may get back to normal sooner than places with significant outbreaks, he said.
“During this unprecedented pandemic, my number one concern will always be the safety of Alaskans. We know that rural communities are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 outbreaks because regions are dispersed and healthcare resources are limited,” added Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky (D-Bethel). “While I am grateful to hear the State is coordinating with local public health officials and school districts to create return-to-school plans that work for individual districts, we need to be sure that educators aren’t forced to make decisions with major public health and safety implications.”
“This school year will be a balancing act for educators, students, and Alaskan families,” Rep. Grier Hopkins(D-Fairbanks) said. “The hard work that our school districts have been putting in to keep the physical and mental health of their students, staff and communities safe was apparent in their planning. Now, we must ensure that we move forward with the best on the ground medical information available. This will be a practice in understanding, flexibility and equitable opportunities as the school year progresses. The collaboration so far between state and local officials is promising, and we need to continue working together to keep our children and communities safe and educated.”