Once again, the Juneau School District found itself at odds with a large group of parents over COVID-19 policies set by the school board and enforced by school administrators that failed to consider changing conditions and available science.
The dispute erupted when the Juneau-Douglas High School Crimson Bear boys’ basketball team won the Southeast Alaska regional championship after defeating the host team, Ketchikan Kings – thereby qualifying the Bears to attend the ASAA State Tournament in Wasilla. The existing JDHS travel policy for sports teams does not allow teams to travel to an area in the state that is designated a Covid “Red Zone” which the Matsu area was currently.
The Bears requested a waiver, but despite the efforts of many parents who petitioned administrators and school board members, JSD Superintendent Bridget Weiss summarily announced no exemption would be granted and travel to the Matsu tournament was denied. Ketchikan, the regional conference runner-up, was offered and accepted an invitation to go in Juneau’s place, joining other Southeast Alaska schools from Sitka, Mt. Edgecumbe and Klawock that sent teams to the tourney.
Parents, coaches, and team members were understandably upset given the cancellation last year of the tournament and their hard-fought battle this year to qualify despite all the Covid restrictions. For many on the team, this was their last chance to compete in the state tournament and perhaps garner an athletic scholarship at a university.
Could this dispute have been avoided and better-handled? Certainly, had school officials taken the initiative to reevaluate existing COVID-19 policies in light of changing conditions on the ground. After all, Juneau was reportedly the only team qualifying for the tournament that was forbidden to travel (Valdez decided not to go after some members of their team tested positive).
Furthermore, communication between the team, parents and school officials was seriously lacking. Why not schedule a meeting with team members and parents to consider their concerns and suggestions before deciding? Since the policy was enacted last year, COVID-19 science and information has progressed significantly, and, most importantly, vaccines are prevalent (Alaska has one of the country’s highest rates of vaccination.) The team had safely and successfully traveled several times, observing every recommended precaution including wearing masks, testing, and isolating. It doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility that the policy could have been modified, or a waiver granted.
The school district raised the specter of district liability were team members to contract Covid or the possibility of community infection when the team returned home. Team members and parents already signed a waiver of liability to participate in school sports and participation in the tournament was totally voluntary. As it stands now, many students taking spring break vacations with their families and traveling throughout the U. S. where Covid is present will be returning to Juneau. They are required to follow applicable Covid quarantine and testing rules before returning to the classroom. Those same precautions could have been enforced with sports team members.
The board declined to meet with parents and athletes to discuss available options thoughtfully and respectfully. Even though school policy states “travel requests will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis,” the school board and administrators chose the heavy-handed approach, rejecting parents’ pleas and rigidly enforcing the policy without consideration of mitigating factors.
This is reminiscent of JSD officials’ reluctance last year to reconsider their entire Smart Start policy that forbade in-person learning until earlier this year, despite CDC guidance to the contrary and the safe opening of many private schools around the state.
Just like the current dust-up, officials discounted parents’ legitimate concerns regarding the emotional, educational and physical damage of COVID-19 mandates, ignoring the science, and never clearly articulating the rationale behind their decisions.
Have school officials and school board members learned anything from this?
It’s hard to tell. Spring sports are underway, and the school year is not yet over. Will the school board and administrators be proactive and sit down with coaches, parents, and students to discuss possible policy changes before this happens again?
The key is two-way communication and, right now, that isn’t happening.
• Win Gruening retired as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in 2012. He was born and raised in Juneau and is active in community affairs as a 30-plus year member of Juneau Downtown Rotary Club and has been involved in various local and statewide organizations.