Mask debates, staff shortages stress Anchorage teachers as omicron spreads

Jacob Bera teaches art at Eagle River High School. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Out of 150 students, 28 were absent from Jacob Bera’s art classes one day last week.

“It’s a significant chunk,” he said.

And it wasn’t an unusual day. It’s been pretty common to have that many kids out in the days after winter break, as the omicron variant of the coronavirus skyrockets in the Anchorage area, said Bera, an art teacher at Eagle River High School. By Thursday, there were 997 active COVID-19 cases in the Anchorage School District. But Bera suspects there are a lot more absences that parents aren’t reporting as COVID-19 infection. Other students are staying home while they wait for test results. 

Bera said he wants to keep teaching in person, but parents and district leaders need to understand that safety measures like masking are what allow that to work.

“I really feel that sometimes there’s been this feeling like teachers want to shut things down when they’re raising concerns about mitigation measures,” he said. “I’m the exact opposite — I want to keep schools open, but I think we need to do things a certain way in order to make that happen.”

In Bera’s art room, students can spread out more easily than they might in a typical classroom. On a district-wide level, he said, increasing social distancing could help slow the spread of omicron. He also thinks mitigation measures could improve at lunchtime and during after-school programs, when kids are often close together and unmasked.

“We’ve learned in this last year and a half what is safe practice, but it doesn’t always look that way,” Bera said. “Lunchtime is like the wild West.”

Superintendent Deena Bishop said schools need to balance safety precautions inside schools with what’s happening outside of them.

“If we were in a different place – where our community was shut down, where we weren’t going to restaurants and movie theaters and gyms and sporting events – schools might look differently,” she said. “We’re not there. I don’t believe that schools should be the only place that has these most stringent restrictions when that is not the reality when they leave our doors.”

Across the country, school districts are debating mask mandates, COVID testing requirements and whether schools should move to remote learning as omicron quickly spreads. In Anchorage, student and staff absences are increasing, and teachers are frustrated. 

Last week, the Anchorage School District said some schools may have to temporarily close if too many staff are absent. Two classrooms in Northwood Elementary closed for four days this week for that reason. In a statement, the district noted that closures so far this semester “have been minimal and mostly by classroom, not building-wide.”

Corey Aist, president of the Anchorage Education Association teachers union, said teachers are concerned about those staff shortages and how they impact student learning. If teachers are absent, others might have to cover for them. That can lead to larger class sizes or lost prep periods, he said.

“Teachers want to do the best they can for the students and families they are serving, and they get very frustrated and anxious when they know what they’re being asked to do is not supporting student outcomes,” he said.

Bishop said, like all other sectors, employees out sick and in quarantine have presented the district with some challenges. She said district directors are in daily contact with principals to understand staffing needs, and that 30 to 40 teachers and administrators — including Bishop herself — have acted as substitutes.

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Aist said teachers are currently working without a contract, and that’s added another barrier to teacher retention.

“Contract negotiations come and go, but they don’t always come and go during a pandemic, when things are really complicated, really challenging and people are reevaluating their job opportunities and their priorities,” he said.

Even more so than during previous variants, Aist said, teachers are worried about catching COVID. 

At lunchtime on Tuesday, Soren Wuerth went out to his car in the parking lot of Dimond High School and took off his KN95 mask. It’s the only place he feels comfortable doing so.

“Teachers are coming out to their cars to eat their lunch because it’s one of the only safe places,” he said.

Wuerth teaches language arts and Alaska studies. He said nearly a third of his students and a quarter of teachers and staff are out sick. For the students who are out, Wuerth is posting assignments on Canvas, the school’s online system. But, he said, managing in-person classes and Canvas assignments feels like wearing two hats.

“It’s like whack-a-mole trying to get assignments in,” he said.

Wuerth said he feels like there’s been a lack of planning — on a district and state level — for this latest wave of COVID infections. He said students are still confused about whether they need to wear masks. He’d like to see a district-wide curriculum for teachers and students about the science behind COVID safety.

For now, Wuerth thinks schools should go online, at least temporarily, so case numbers have a chance to go down.

“Right now it’s like, make everybody go to school and then see what plays out. And that’s not really a plan, it’s trying to keep business as usual,” he said. “I guess it feels like they’re trying to pretend the pandemic away. Let’s pretend it’s not here. And we can’t do that anymore.”

The district went back and forth on whether to require masks after winter break. It first announced it would switch to optional, “parent-informed” masking. Then, the school board voted on Dec. 20 to extend the mask mandate until at least Jan. 15. Teachers say the timing of the change caused confusion among students and families.

In a statement, the district wrote, “The total new cases per 100,000 persons in the past seven days was at 1,629 as of January 10. For context: this number was hovering close to 100 when the decision was initially made last month to remove the mask mandate.”

School districts around the country have moved to remote learning in recent weeks. In Chicago, the teachers union called for online learning and other safety measures, and when the city refused to meet the demands, teachers stopped working.

Mary Richards teaches English at Chugiak High School in Eagle River. She said she’d like to keep teaching in person, but she wants the district to send a stronger message to families about the importance of masks.

“If you look at what we’re doing compared to the rest of the nation, we’re not saying we’re going to strike or we’re going to call in sick because we’re not going online,” she said. “We’re not pushing for online. And I feel like the public is not giving us any credit for that. We’re willing to go and wear masks and do what we need to do. But we just ask the bare minimum: Everybody wear masks.”

The district announced Thursday that its mask mandate would remain in place until further notice. Bishop said the district has been transparent about their decisions regarding masks and other safety precautions. In a message to families, she wrote that district employees have done exceptional work under difficult circumstances.

“It is hard, and I’m not sure that our community understands how hard that work is,” she said. “But we’re doing our best in keeping our doors open and supporting kids in that routine of going to school and that routine of learning.”

Bishop and district teachers say they want to keep students in classrooms — but they need community support to make it happen safely.

This story has been updated to include an interview with Superintendent Deena Bishop.

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