The Juneau School District took the first careful steps toward normal on Monday as students in first grade, middle school and high school returned to classrooms.
“It has been a super good week. It’s been remarkable. Everyone did such a good job planning and preparing that it went super smooth,” said JSD superintendent Dr. Bridget Weiss in a phone interview. “There was some classic first-day kind of things. Buses off schedule here and there. There was minor, minor things that were classic on the first day. We don’t usually do our first day in January.”
Weiss said that students cottoned to new routines and standards smoothly and quickly, aided by community-minded parents.
“I was so impressed. They were remarkable. There was no question about wearing a mask. They did their hand sanitizer when they entered the building,” Weiss said. “They were learning those routines and they were cooperating. Parents have done a really good job preparing kids by having them wear masks in the community.”
About 1,200 students returned to school this week, which will swell to roughly 1,900 by the end of January, Weiss said. About 550 students left Juneau or went to other home-schooling curricula; 400 enrolled with JSD’s own Homebridge program; and about 1,600 students signaled their intent to continue distance learning for the time being, Weiss said.
“We gave our families a choice. It definitely complicates our operations. But it’s what we need to do for our community,” Weiss said. “We’re starting with small cohorts for safety reasons. We’ll grow those slowly.”
Weiss said that schools would rather proceed with care than risk endangering students, staff and the community.
“That’s the thing I’ve heard: we want more. We have to make sure the protocols are working, that the community level is low. We’ll take that next step when we’re ready,” Weiss said. “What we’re doing right now is working really well. We’d rather go slow and steady than do a lot of start-stop start-stop.”
Weiss said the community has been largely supportive, although, as with anything, people have different opinions about how the schools should be reopened.
“One of the pieces of the experience in this pandemic is that every decision has multiple perspectives. This is no different,” Weiss said. “Some people said we didn’t do it soon enough. Some people said we’re so close, why not wait for everyone to get vaccinated.”
The district has considered the balance between getting students back to school and community safety, Weiss said. If the situation requires it, the district has contingencies to isolate an outbreak while more and more staff get vaccinated.
“We’re watching daily the health status in Juneau. We’re also watching the health status in our schools. If we see cases pop up in our schools, we have some options,” Weiss said. “We might have some students and staff quarantine. We might have a school close. If it’s widespread across our schools, we might have to revert as a district.”
Second through fifth graders will phase in over the next two weeks, Weiss said.
• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at (757) 621-1197 or firstname.lastname@example.org.