The Juneau School District announced it will be expanding in-person instruction over the next few weeks. School officials cite the community’s stable infection rate and new science-based guidance for opening schools are driving factors behind the expanded offerings. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire File)

Lower COVID numbers mean more school options for Juneau students

District looks to add more in-person learning.

This story has been updated to include additional information.

Soon, Juneau School District students will have more opportunities for instruction.

Almost a year after COVID-19 suspended in-person classes for most students and a few months after a limited return to hybrid learning, the district is planning to add instruction by adding days and increasing the instructional portion of each class at the middle and high school levels.

“The slow start has been frustrating. But from the beginning, our main goal has been to responsibly start small and expand in-person instruction instead of stopping and readjusting,” said Juneau School District chief of staff Kristin Bartlett in a phone interview Friday.

She added that the community’s stable infection rate and new scientific guidance on school reopening mean that the district can now expand in-person instruction while continuing to offer options to families who are more comfortable with remote learning.

“Our mitigation has been successful. We have several layers of mitigation, and it seems to be working,” she said.

Bartlett noted that while there have been a few cases of COVID-19 connected to the school district, the virus has not spread at school.

Schools to reopen to students on Monday

Middle school changes begin March 1

Beginning March 1, middle school students will have the opportunity to attend up to two days per week of in-person instruction or attend classes virtually. Students can currently choose to attend one day a week, with the three other instructional days through distance learning.

“Our in-person cohorts will go from A, B, C, D to AA and BB,” Bartlett said.

In addition, beginning next week, the amount of time spent on instruction will increase for each class period, with less time allocated to independent study.

Expanded elementary school schedule begins in April

Later this spring, elementary students will have the option of attending an expanded schedule of in-person classes.

Principals are still discussing the details and start dates, but options include expanding to two full days of in-person instruction or offering four, half-days. Those who wish to continue virtual instruction have the opportunity to do so.

“Principals are currently working on adjusting schedules to increase the time that students spend at school. This change will result in student sessions being longer on their in-person days,” Bartlett said in an email Friday evening. “There are many pieces to the puzzle to sort out as we continue to provide support to students who are doing all distance learning and support for asynchronous learning opportunities for students.

She said that details and start dates will be shared by school principals and classroom teachers in the coming weeks.

“The challenge is that schedules need to be reconstructed, so distance learners still get quality instruction,” Bartlett said.

Currently, all students participate in distance learning four mornings a week and have the option to attend two half-days.

Juneau lowers community risk level

High school schedule remains the same, instruction expands

Starting next week, high school students will receive expanded instruction, as the amount of time spent on instruction will increase for each class period, with less time allocated to independent study.

Otherwise, the schedule will remain the same, with Monday designated a school-wide distance learning day, Wednesday an independent study day, and Tuesday, Thursday and Friday as days where each student can choose to attend in-person or via distance learning.

By the numbers

Since its introduction this school year, the popularity of in-person learning has grown. Bartlett said that about 45% of students are attending some in-person classes as of the end of January.

Overall, the extended break from full-time, in-person learning has meant enrollment changes for the district, with about 410 students moving to the district-supported HomeBRIDGE program rather than the 35 students the program typically serves. Another 500 students have left the district for other home school programs.

However, surveys of the families of students who have left indicate that they plan to return in the fall.

“A HomeBRIDGE survey of families about plans for next year revealed that 74% of respondents intend to return to in-person school at JSD next year. A survey of families who left JSD for another school option this year shows that 50% of those families intend to return to JSD next year,” Bartlett said in an email Friday afternoon.

Looking ahead

While the 2021-2022 school year is still months away, Bartlett said the district plans for a school year with five full days of in-person learning.

“That’s definitely the hope and what everyone is planning for,” she said. “We don’t know exactly what will happen, but there are a lot of positive things in place,” she said.

She cited the change allowing educators to get vaccines as an example of positive momentum.

Contact reporter Dana Zigmund at dana.zigmund@juneauempire.com or 907-308-4891.

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