Anchorage students returned to city schools for the first time in a week Thursday, while school district and city leaders addressed criticism over the closures, which they say were forced by historic snowfall and unsafe streets.
More than 39 inches of snow had fallen on Anchorage in November, as of Friday, breaking the city’s all-time record for the month. Heavy snowfall from Thursday to Monday led to car accidents, vehicle damage from ruts in the road and power outages across Southcentral Alaska.
It also caused the Anchorage School District to cancel in-person classes for its nearly 50,000 students, as district officials said it was unsafe to bus students to schools.
“It’s a crisis, as well as a strategic failure for a number of different entities,” said Jharrett Bryantt, superintendent of Anchorage schools, in an interview Thursday, speaking publicly for the first time about the school closures.
The school district prepared for remote learning last week when forecasts first showed a snowstorm would hit the city, Bryantt said. It wasn’t an easy decision for the school district — and Bryantt admits remote learning is not as effective as in-person instruction — but he said the snowy roads posed a threat to student safety.
“I think we can all agree that the roads speak for themselves when it comes to how successful these past couple of weeks have been,” Bryantt said. “It’s a crisis when your students are robbed of an opportunity to go to school for nearly a week, not even because it’s necessarily actively snowing, but because it’s been a challenge to clear, admittedly, a very large volume of snow off the roads.”
The district never intended to have students go to remote learning for four straight days of classes, and the responsibility of doing whatever is necessary to clear the roads in a timely manner, so that kids can get to school safely, lies with the city and state, Bryantt said.
“We got half of an average season’s snowfall one week,” Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson said in an interview Friday. “So it was a lot of really wet, heavy snow. It created a lot of challenges for a lot of departments that have to move snow. Is snow a crisis in Alaska? I don’t think so.”
The city had a better plan for snow removal than it did last December, when storms also caused students to stay home, and crews and contractors have been successful in executing that plan, Bronson said.
But Bronson also said in a live video stream Wednesday that he had directed city equipment and operators to help clear state-owned roads that the state is supposed to maintain. Some, including Anchorage Assembly members, have said that delayed plowing for many side roads in residential areas, where some schools are located.
The state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities did not respond to requests for comment in time for this story.
It was an issue of public safety, and canceling in-person school is ultimately the school district’s decision, Bronson said.
“We got a lot of frustrated emails and phone calls from folks who say, ‘Hey, the schools got to be open,’ and we took that to heart,” Bronson said. “We just think that we could have, a couple days ago, opened up more schools. You know, open up as you can, you don’t have to open them all. But again, it’s their decision. It’s not mine. That’s a really good team over there. I respect them a lot. So you know, it is what it is.”
Bryantt, the superintendent, said he’s concerned about the impact to students’ education from a week of remote learning.
“The purpose of remote learning is to ensure there is a continuity of instruction,” Bryantt said. “The issue in my viewpoint, it’s not about remote learning, it’s about why are we doing remote learning for over a week?”
And even when the district determined roads were safe enough to bus students to most schools Thursday, seven buses got stuck, two dozen arrived late and one elementary school remained closed due to poor road conditions in the area.
Meanwhile, the Anchorage Assembly says it will review the city’s response to the recent storms.