Anchorage schools could temporarily close if COVID, travel and weather leave them too understaffed

Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop at Huffman Elementary School on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

The Anchorage School District announced Tuesday that it may have to temporarily close schools in the coming weeks if COVID-19 cases, travel delays and weather emergencies leave buildings too understaffed.

Already, it’s had to close one school this week for four days. Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop said between staff getting stuck in the Lower 48 after the holidays, weather emergencies in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and the spread of the omicron variant, the district needs to prepare for teacher absences.

“Understanding omicron and what could happen as we move into the future, we just need to be ready that there might be a time where we don’t have enough people,” Bishop said in an interview Tuesday.

Teachers and staff who test positive for COVID-19 must isolate for 10 days.

“I am sure that at some point [schools will temporarily close],” Bishop said. “It might be one or two days attached to a weekend to help staff get healthy and back after the isolation period that’s required for positive tests.”

Bishop also detailed staffing challenges in a message sent to families Tuesday afternoon. She said school closures would happen on a district-wide basis in order to coordinate food service and busing.

She said any missed days of school would be made up throughout the semester. Make-up days could include teacher work days scheduled for Feb. 18 and March 4, as well as the Martin Luther King Jr. and Presidents Day holidays. Spring break, scheduled for March 7 to 11, would also be an option.

“I think vacation days are the ones we’d want to stay away from the most,” Bishop said. “But I just hope that parents understand that school is important and that kids have missed too much, and that having high-quality instruction and a school day is important.”

Whaley School is closed for the rest of this week due to staff shortages related to travel, COVID cases and Mat-Su winds. Whaley is unique because many of its teachers are trained to meet students’ behavioral needs, said Bishop. It’s a K-12 alternative school.

“If we put in a substitute, it really could impact the learning of the students and the safety of the students and staff,” Bishop said. “So that’s why we decided to have it off the rest of the week.”

Schools nationwide have struggled to hire enough math, science and special education teachers for years. The pandemic, Bishop said, brought an additional staff shortage: hourly employees, including bus drivers, food service workers and school aides. The district has offered signing bonuses for those positions to try to attract workers to the school district rather than, for example, the tourism or restaurant industries. According to the district website, some cafeteria positions are eligible for signing bonuses up to $2,500.

Bishop said that moving to virtual learning is also an option in the face of staffing shortages, but only as a last resort.

“For me, keeping schools open – a safe, comfortable, high-rigor place where kids can come and learn – is essential to me,” Bishop said. “But the reality of omicron, we’ll face it and see where it brings us.”

Last month, the Anchorage School Board voted to extend mandatory masking through Jan. 15. Bishop said the district will decide whether to extend it further by Jan. 14. She said it’s likely they will extend it because of how contagious the omicron variant is.

Alaska Public Media

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