Fairbanks teachers’ unions denounce reopening of in-person schooling

A sidewalk entryway into a teal school entrance
Badger Road Elementary School in Fairbanks. (Robyne/KUAC)

The associations that represent Fairbanks-area teachers, principals and support staff released a statement Friday opposing the opening of schools in January.

A week ago, the Board of Education for the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District voted to give students the option to return to in-person learning for the second semester. The board’s plan does not require schools to follow the CDC’s COVID-19 or the state of Alaska’s Smart Start guidelines for masking, social distancing and hygiene. The plan only “acknowledges” schools will meet those guidelines “to the best of their abilities.”

In response to that plan, the Fairbanks Education Association, Education Support Staff Association, and Fairbanks Principals Association released a joint statement on Friday slamming the proposal.

On Monday, these guidelines from medical experts across the state and nation were cast aside without ensuring the safety of students, educators, and our communities,” they wrote.

The three organizations represent more than 1,500 employees in the district. Members had been making regular public comments to the school board since school started in August, but especially after the October municipal election, when two candidates who had campaigned on the issue of reopening schools were elected to the board.

“Returning to in-person instruction remains a top priority of the Education Support Staff Association, but it must be done in a way that ensures the safety of all district employees and especially the students in our schools,” Jasmine Adkins-Brown, ESSA President, said in the statement.

State health officials said that if the community could bring down its transmission rate, schools would be safer. If adults avoided indoor gatherings, and closed bars and indoor dining, schools would not be significant vectors for carrying COVID-19.

State Public Health Physician Dr. Elizabeth Ohlsen, who has been working with school districts across Alaska, attended a recent board work session. She said teens and adults are at greater risk of death or long-term damage from COVID-19, but children are carriers.

“Kids under age 10 are a little less likely to spread it. But we know they can get it, they can spread it. It’s just a little less likely, it’s not a whole lot less likely, unfortunately. Teenagers can get it at least as easily as adults, and spread it,” she said.

Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink attended the work session, because the North Star Borough is one of the largest school districts in Alaska.

“When people take mitigation steps very seriously, and they do them well, we see very little transmission. And so when we have people masked, and we have people 6 feet apart, and they are not eating in break rooms together, and they aren’t all wrestling together we don’t see a lot of transmission. But when we see people not take those mitigation steps, we see a lot of transmission,” Zink said.

School will start on Jan. 6, with only a handful of students in the buildings: those with special academic needs and those with poor internet access. On Jan. 19, any elementary school students who wish to return to in-person schooling can. Middle School students will be phased in Jan. 25, and high school students Feb. 1.

The second-semester plan maintains the option for students to stay at home and learn remotely if they prefer. The e-learning correspondence school or the BEST homeschool program will remain an option for families who do not want their children in school buildings.

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