The Juneau School District building, March 20, 2020. (Michael S. Lockett/ Juneau Empire)

Opinion: Can we reopen Juneau schools?

Cowardice in the face of injustice is complicity.

  • By John Drips
  • Tuesday, October 20, 2020 10:47am
  • Opinion

By John Drips

“Let’s focus on what we can do, not what we can’t”

The Juneau School District’s SMART START plan has not been updated since their August decision to run schools using distance only. A lot has happened since Aug. 4.

The superintendent was quoted in this paper on Oct. 14 as saying that a recent family survey gave the district information that would inform how JSD could provide in person schooling down to “what school, what grade, what kid. With that we can begin building those specific plans”. It is odd, to say the least, to hear that those specific plans have not been in continuous development in accordance with the SMART START guidance issued in July by Alaska’s Department of Education and Early Development. JSD can make its own SMART START plan a living document.

DEED chose the word “SMART” in their guidance to focus on the Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timely aspects of starting school. That JSD has not been developing a specific plan since July, indicates a lack of understanding of (or a disregard for) the state’s guidance. That is also indicated by JSD’s focus on what can’t be done, rather than what it can do.

Of course, a sudden return to pre-pandemic schooling would lead to community spread of COVID-19. But that doesn’t mean that JSD must continue to prevent nearly all students from occupying safe, warm, secure, clean, digitally connected and publicly owned buildings.

JSD can deploy federally funded, in-person offerings to students at no-cost to families that choose to opt-in through the 21st Century Community Learning Center Program (known locally as LEAP and Connect). In fact, the original intent of the 21st CCLC program was to open schools to community members to facilitate the development of 21st Century skills. It is a strange irony that a school district that receives 21st CCLC funding would turn around and lockout their own students.

The use-it-or-lose-it model for grant funded programs mean that choices by JSD to withhold, reduce or delay service to students are choices that send federal and state dollars out of the district while lower income families can’t access childcare. JSD can serve these students.

The district has the funding, the eager teachers and staff, the space, the resources, and community support necessary to serve students safely in a much more effective way. JSD can do better. When will district leadership get out of the way?

The Alaska SMART START plan explicitly recognizes the tradeoffs and judgements necessary for schools to respond equitably to this pandemic. The state’s plan instructs districts to prioritize “basic needs such as food, shelter and wellness […] to support the mental, social, and emotional health of students and staff.” The state’s plan further recognizes that schools “play an important role in parents and caregivers’ ability to work and plan, especially for younger children.” Finally, the state’s plan instructs districts to “apply an equity-informed lens to promote culturally sustaining and revitalizing educational systems that support every child, especially those in need of the most support.”

JSD offers lip-service to the concepts of equity and anti-racism. JSD trains its staff on “Trauma-Engaged” practices. But since April, JSD’s nearly all-white middle class leadership can’t seem to grapple with the trade-offs inherent in the choice to prevent access to safety for the most vulnerable. Caution in the face of danger is wise. But caution blends gently into cowardice as it moves away from reason. Cowardice in the face of injustice is complicity. JSD leadership seems unable or unwilling to recognize how their actions and inactions are not “trauma-engaged”, but rather, JSD itself is complicit in the ongoing trauma of students by prohibiting access to the publicly funded resources at their schools.

Win Gruening asked in his column “When will Juneau schools reopen?” The answer is, when the citizens of Juneau demand, through their duly elected representatives, that JSD do so. When the citizens of Juneau demand that JSD focus on what it can do, rather than what it can’t.

Vote. Attend the next school board meeting on October 21st online at 4:30pm (find the link at Contact the School Board at

• John Drips, resigned as manager of the Riverbend LEAP 21st Century Community Learning Center Program after the district announced it would not be offering in-person instruction in the fall of 2020. He has lived in Juneau for five years with his wife. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a My Turn or letter.

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