Juneau School District divided over return to in-person classes

school bus idles at JDHS
A school bus idles outside Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé in Juneau on Nov. 10, 2020. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

The Juneau School District announced the start of in-person classes for preschool students earlier this week.

Kindergarten students could return to in-person classes by the end of the month. But with the state currently at a high-risk level and holidays coming up, the school district is divided over whether that needs to happen.

The decision to bring students back to in-person classes has been part of the district’s SMART Start plan since June. 

Schools have already been allowing individual students and small groups into buildings — with health and safety measures in place. The district made the announcement to expand in-person classes on Monday.

During the city’s COVID-19 community update, Superintendent Bridget Weiss said that a small group of Kindergarten students could return to in-person classes as soon as Nov. 30.

“Starting with those students who definitely are more challenged, receiving their education via Zoom,” Weiss said.

But a day after the announcement, parents, teachers and staff voiced their concerns over the decision at this week’s Board of Education meeting. 

Recently elected school board member Martin Stepetin advocated for families who can’t afford internet service and have to use satellite sites and third-party locations for classes.

“Is there a way that we could prioritize those students to get them in at all or just to help?” Stepetin asked. “You know, use this opportunity, if at all possible, to bring some relief to those families who Zoom is not working already in the first place, or is really difficult for them?”

Boardmember Deedie Sorensen quizzed Weiss about whether the district had met with teachers about its decision — noting that all kindergarten and first-grade teachers are unanimously against expanding in-person learning.

The Juneau Education Association — the local teacher’s union — voted unanimously against the expansion to in-person classes. 

Kelly Stewart, president of the association, says while it has been working with the district on the plan, teachers found out about the rollout dates last Friday.

“What I’m hearing from the majority of our K-1 teachers is that they do not want to come back until after winter break just because of all of the different holidays and the traveling,” said Stewart. “They just think it would be safer, and give us more time to have the safety protocols put into place.”

Weiss is meeting with all kindergarten and first-grade teachers on Thursday. The superintendent also said the district’s plans may change.