Anchorage School District officials presented a plan to bring students back to school buildings as early as January 19 at a school board meeting Tuesday night.
That’s two weeks after school begins following the holiday break.
The plan will focus on returning small groups of students across all grade levels to school buildings, prioritizing students who are failing or need additional support. Then, the district will bring back all students for full-time in-person learning in phases, starting with the youngest students.
Superintendent Deena Bishop said she is confident in the plan because the district already has 26 small tutoring groups, with about 10 students each, running in school buildings. There will be 52 small groups in classrooms within the next three weeks, Bishop said.
“Our educators are seeing the importance of educating face to face and they’re doing it, and coming in and organizing around the mitigation strategies,” Bishop said. “So we’re only building confidence day by day of what ASD can do.”
Right now, the tutoring programs are voluntary for teachers and largely targeted toward specific students. After the break, schools will be required to have small in-person groups.
Some school board members asked if students could return to in-person learning sooner, since the district was prepared for in-person learning in mid-November, before postponing that plan.
While Bishop said administrators need time to review mitigation strategies and prepare for students, she said she was also interested in speeding up the timeline. But doing so would largely depend on staffing levels.
Bishop said administrators in the Mat-Su school district shared that school closures in their district were most often related to staffing shortages rather than COVID-19 cases within schools, because teachers needed to quarantine or follow contact tracing requirements.
If ASD schools can adequately staff their school buildings after the break, they might be able to start with in-person learning sooner, Bishop said.
But, the district doesn’t know exactly how many teachers will return to classrooms, and it will likely remain unknown until in-person learning begins, according to Matthew Teaford, the district’s chief human resources officer. Teaford said staffing levels could fluctuate if teachers need to quarantine or call in sick. Staffing has also changed any time the district announces a re-opening date.
“We have noted a sort of an ebb and flow in those queries from staff as we’ve moved toward a planned opening day,” said Teaford. “Upticks in terms of requests for leave or other accommodations as we approach those dates.”
A September survey from the district’s teachers’ union indicated that a quarter of teachers said they would not return to the classroom.
But, a more recent survey showed teachers in schools running tutoring groups feel good about returning to classrooms, according to Deputy Superintendent Mark Stock.
“… Implying that where we had brought students in, where we had done and followed our mitigation strategies, those top schools were all rated with the highest ratings for safety from staff,” Stock said. “So we believe this builds confidence.”
The district hopes to have their plan finalized by Christmas break, Stock said. If that can happen, the superintendent will be able to announce within the first week of January whether in-person learning can begin.