The Anchorage School District (ASD) and the Anchorage community breathed a collective sigh of relief when we started this school year in our classrooms. Almost none of us wishes to return to last year’s online learning model that proved ineffective for many students and led to higher-than-normal retirement and resignation rates among staff.
ASD deserves credit for returning us to in-person learning this fall. They earned well-deserved praise last winter when they transformed the Boniface Education Center into a mass vaccination site and staffed it with many ASD medical professionals and volunteers. They also instituted mask mandates in all ASD buildings, choosing to follow CDC guidelines rather than political pundits and social media gibberish.
Yet, after being back in school just two weeks, and with COVID cases reaching their highest levels in 2021, it’s safe to say there have been positive cases at every public school building in Anchorage. Despite this fact, ASD’s online webpage shows, as of this writing, classrooms at only two schools have shifted to online learning. This is because, under current CDC guidelines, a positive COVID case in a classroom where everyone is masked does not require quarantine. In other words, what’s currently keeping ASD schools open is ASD’s mask mandate.
How long we can protect school populations against the Delta variant, however, remains to be seen. Several hundred students eat lunch together in school cafeterias, all unmasked. As we know, case numbers are trending upward, and ASD announced last week they were suspending some bus routes because of driver illnesses, among other factors. ASD may be on a trajectory few want to acknowledge. But as we have all witnessed in the last two months, ignoring the Delta variant does not provide protection. ASD must act now to keep its schools open to in-person learning.
Beginning immediately, ASD should set up vaccination clinics at all secondary schools and provide shots to any student 12 years or older who receives parental consent. Schools have served as vaccination sites in past pandemics and should do so again during this pandemic. ASD received $50 million in federal COVID relief funds last spring, with a purported $100 million to follow in a second relief payment. Rather than buying pallets of hand sanitizer to fight an airborne contagion, ASD should promote and provide vaccines directly to its students. If we can interrupt instruction for school pictures, then surely we can find time in the school day to inoculate secondary students who want vaccines.
In fact, most secondary schools have parent open houses scheduled for September. This would be a perfect opportunity to inform parents about in-school vaccination programs and begin the parental consent process. Vaccine sites in our secondary schools also could serve as a test model for vaccinating elementary students once a vaccine is approved for children under 12.
If we can reach even some of our adolescent population who haven’t received vaccines for a host of reasons-- including lack of transportation, working parents, and insufficient information-- then we stand a chance of keeping schools open and more families healthy. But if our school district fails to act, then the Delta variant might send us all home.
One of our collective goals is to provide safe learning environments during a pandemic. ASD must lead the way once more by offering free vaccines at all secondary schools.