Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire Second-grade teacher Katie Koski reacts to the news that a student lost a tooth and was visited by the Tooth Fairy, Friday, Sept. 4, 2020.

Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire Second-grade teacher Katie Koski reacts to the news that a student lost a tooth and was visited by the Tooth Fairy, Friday, Sept. 4, 2020.

Juneau School District hopes for reopening plan by end of month

With better data on family needs, specific planning can begin

There is no date for when in-person classes will resume in Juneau, said school district Superintendent Bridget Weiss. However, a recent student inventory gives district staff better data to use while plotting a path forward.

“It is important that we plan in such a way that we are not making quick or sudden moves for families and staff,” Weiss said in a phone interview Tuesday. “We want to be able to give people enough time to plan, there’s a lot of pieces inside our systems.”

Last week, the district asked families to fill out “Return to School Inventory” forms to help the district plan for how many families are ready to have their children attend class in person and how many prefer distance delivery, Weiss said. Parents were asked about school, grades and other information about how willing they were to send their kids to in-person classes.

“We got a pretty good response, over 2,700 student responses,” Weiss said. “Fifty percent are saying they’re comfortable, about 30% are undecided and 20% are saying no.’”

Educators are following up with families that didn’t respond and a similar inventory is being done by staff, she said, to try to determine how many staff will be available to work in person and in groups, she said.

[Parents say new school year comes with fresh challenges]

Going forward, the district wants to be able to serve both families that want to have their children in the classroom and those who want to continue distance learning, Weiss said, but couldn’t yet say exactly what that was going to look like or when such a plan may be implemented.

“That’s what we’re going to be doing in the next couple of weeks,” she said. “It is complicated to work both options at the same time but that’s what we have to do.”

Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire Learning bundles await pickup at Riverbend Elementary School on Friday, Sept. 4. Principal Elizabeth Pisel-Davis said the materials ensure that not all learning is done via screens. Materials include things such as sketch books and math manipulative materials — objects that allow students to work out math concepts with physical items.Learning bundles await pickup at Riverbend Elementary School on Friday, Sept. 4, 2020. Principal Elizabeth Pisel-Davis said the materials ensure that not all learning is done via screens. Materials include things such as sketch books and math manipulative materials — objects that allow students to work out match concepts with physical items. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire Learning bundles await pickup at Riverbend Elementary School on Friday, Sept. 4. Principal Elizabeth Pisel-Davis said the materials ensure that not all learning is done via screens. Materials include things such as sketch books and math manipulative materials — objects that allow students to work out math concepts with physical items. Learning bundles await pickup at Riverbend Elementary School on Friday, Sept. 4, 2020. Principal Elizabeth Pisel-Davis said the materials ensure that not all learning is done via screens. Materials include things such as sketch books and math manipulative materials — objects that allow students to work out match concepts with physical items. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

In an email last week, Weiss said the district is working to implement the second phase of the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development’s SMART START 2020 program that involves more in-person learning. Schools are serving small numbers of students in person through the Relationships and Leadership, Learning for Youth child care program, specific hands-on classes like music, trades, internet access and special education services Weiss said.

Distance education has shown to be less effective than in-person learning, and many parents in Juneau are struggling to find child care in the city’s already limited supply.

At an Oct. 6, Anchorage School Board meeting, Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop told board members remote education was not working.

“We are not doing a good job of educating our young people with distance delivery,” she told the Board, according to Alaska Public Media. “It is not a sign of weakness in making a decision. I’m letting you know, COVID is killing our children in more ways than one. And we need to stand for children today.”

However, even with the acknowledgment distance learning was insufficient to in-person learning and likely detrimental to students’ mental health, Bishop did not announce a date when Anchorage schools might reopen.

The spread of COVID-19 has been increasing in Anchorage and the majority of new cases statewide come from the municipality. According to the city’s coronavirus dashboard, there are more than 2,300 active cases in Anchorage and the city’s health status is on high alert.

According to the state’s COVID-19 website, Juneau’s average case rate was trending down last week, but it spiked up again over the weekend. The state designates its alert levels by number of cases per 100,000 people, and last Thursday Juneau’s case rate was 5.6, the lowest it’s been since August and just above the Low Alert Level threshold. Monday, the average case rate was 8.7, closer to the High Alert Level of 10 cases or higher.

The city’s health alert level also affects school re-opening, but with the information from the survey in hand, Weiss said she expects a plan by the end of the month.

“(The inventory) gave us a good idea generally and gave us very specific information; what school, what grade, what kid. With that we can begin building those specific plans,” she said. “By the end of the month, I will have a much better idea of timelines.”

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.

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