Mat-Su teachers

Mat-Su Borough School District officials met with parents at an open house at Wasilla Middle School Tuesday to discuss COVID-19 and the plan for the start of the school year. 

At the second of five scheduled question and answer sessions between Mat-Su Borough School District staff and families uncertain about the start of school, about two-dozen teachers, parents and family members of students gathered at Wasilla Middle School to interact with MSBSD Executive Directors of Instruction Reese Everett and Justin Ainsworth and Public Information Officer Jillian Morrissey.

During discussion between teachers and district staff, teachers questioned the possibility of maintaining six feet apart in classrooms with the largest class sizes in the state and why the seven-class period day was still being administered. Following the booth that MSBSD had at Friday Fling in Palmer last week, staff will host a handful of open houses including at Houston Jr./Sr. High next Tuesday to answer what questions they can about the start of school on Aug. 19.

“We’re dealing with the human element and we’re going to adapt and adjust and ultimately our job, our responsibility is to support the learning and success of our kids wherever they’re at on the spectrum of comfort with this whole pandemic that we’re dealing with,” said Everett.

With registration for fall classes open, families can choose to receive all of their instruction from an at-home learning model supported by staff at their home school, attend school buildings in person for instruction or choose specific classes to attend in person and others to complete remotely. Since May, a weekly COVID-19 working group made up of district employees from leadership, operations and maintenance, public information, human resources, and nursing have met to examine protocols and procedures inside schools and determine how to best offer instruction safely. Over the last month, representation from both teacher’s unions have been invited to participate in the working group as well. The MSBSD must submit their plan to reopen schools safely to the Department of Education and Early Development by the end of July covering district wide protocols. High School principals return to their school buildings early next week and Middle School principals will soon follow, taking the framework of the district mitigation plan to form their own site specific protocols with assistance from building staff.

“We appreciate people’s concern. We appreciate the fact that such a dynamic situation that has changed so many different times just over the course of the last few months and we will be prepared to support all of our students and their learning to the maximum extent they and their family feel comfortable with. If you want your kid to come to school and learn, they can come to school for face to face instruction. We will absolutely have a site mitigation plan at every single school which will include strongly recommended wearing masks, not mandated. We’ll have increased hand sanitizer, increased cleaning, social distance to the maximum extent possible If a family doesn’t feel comfortable with that, we’re offering an option where learning can be supported from their students chosen school,” said Everett.

Educators within the district did not feel that the question and answer session was helpful and do not feel that their safety can be ensured when schools reopen.

“As a teacher hearing what the district says I have a million questions that they kind of say I don’t know yet, it’s changing, it’s fluid, and they do put it onto the principal which is a horrible burden of responsibility for a position that can’t win anyway, and so it’s an unreasonable expectation. It’s an unreasonable display of trickle down decision making,” said Wasilla High teacher Karli Rauchenstein. “I worry since we are a school district of choice where kids are going to multiple schools, families have kids in four different buildings. That is a worry of mine that I see 180 kids a day. That worries me that our schedule is the way it is and that could be something that would change.”

Of the two dozen attendees on Tuesday night at Wasilla, roughly half were local educators, many of whom held signs to protest the school district’s decision to open to in-person instruction.

“Follow the CDC. Masks are a must,” read one sign. “25 students to a room means no social distancing,” read another.

Teachers are also unhappy that hand sanitizer will not be provided to each classroom, but that teachers must refill their own bottles from the school’s supply. One local educator questioned district staff on the proper use of the disinfectant purchased for desks, arguing that proper disinfection of each desk in between seven class periods will not be possible. Teachers discussed having back to school discussions with colleagues about preparing their will before the school year starts.

“If I have 30 kids, I teach six different classes in the day, they also then are mixing with 1,000 kids in the hallway nine times a day. Those are unrealistic, whereas we could mitigate that by having potentially three periods a day or even go back to six, so cut it back so that you’re meeting with less students for longer periods of time and they’re not exposed to more,” said Rauchenstein. “It would be awesome to really truly productively partner with our school home community to problem solve in a manner that is in the best interest of the health and well being of our kids and it sounds like it’s going to have to be our school community that makes those decisions.”

Everett said that response to a survey sent out in May asking families if they would be interested in an at home learning model this fall returned with roughly 12 percent indicating that they would. As of Tuesday, Everett said that 13 percent of the 9,000 students that have already registered, just under 1,200 students in total have opted to receive their instruction remotely. Everett said that remote learning for students in MSBSD will look different this fall than it did in the fourth quarter of last semester when each teacher delivered all of their instruction online. After principals return and begin outlining site mitigation programs, teachers will divide time to spend delivering remote instruction to students off campus. Everett said that families can choose to opt in or out of at-home learning whenever they choose, but recommended against continually changing where a student learns.

“ Mobility we know can be a really extreme disruption to the learning process,” said Everett. “There is a body of educational research that points to that so we just want people to be aware.”

MSBSD has been delivering in-person instruction since the end of June at four Extended School Year sites for approximately 3000 students. At the question and answer session at Wasilla Middle School on Tuesday, Morrissey encouraged parents to review the mitigation plan for classes currently ongoing for students in summer school. Everett stressed that decisions made by district staff for mitigation protocols are not made in a vacuum, and the district has sought the guidance of top state officials in virtual meetings with state Epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink, Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum and Education Commissioner Michael Johnson, as well as Mat-Su Public Health.

“All of the information we have and recommendations we’re following have been informed by medical experts because we’re not,” said Everett.

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