For weeks, The Blue Alaskan has kept watchful eyes on the reported data as Alaska navigates COVID-19. Over the course of his efforts, he has earned the trust of local employees in both healthcare and education.

On Sunday night, shortly after ASD Superintendent Deena Bishop announced to district families via email that schools would open as planned, The Blue Alaskan was forwarded a separate email from Superintendent Bishop, sent to teachers —the same educators who had previously expressed dismay that Bishop was disregarding concerns for their personal health and well-being.

What follows is that email in full as it first appeared on The Blue Alaskan.

Dear Staff,

I am writing to you from my heart today. Much has been said, and I want to clear the air, set the record straight, and appeal for your understanding.

As your superintendent, I want to acknowledge that many of you have concerns and fears about returning to the workplace. Please know that I take your concerns to heart. I read the emails that come to my attention and to the School Board. While I would like to address each of your concerns personally, there are simply not enough hours in the day to respond to them all at this time. What I can do is assure you that we—the Administration and the governing Board of ASD, want you to be safe and healthy, just as we want for our students, our families, and our community.

We have heard many criticisms about the plan to return to school, and likewise, many pleas to return from parents, students, and staff. Numerous parents have written heart-wrenching stories describing the intense challenges in their families, compounded by the economic and educational difficulties brought on by the lack of in-person school.

I have shared that one reason to reenter school is due to the high incidents of self-harm and ideations about suicide. It is said that if this is true, I should share more details. While our state as a whole may be reporting fewer acts of self-harm since the pandemic began, without children in school, many circumstances that would otherwise come to light are believed to go unreported. This is clearly logical; our skilled school staff are trained to recognize depression and signs of acts against children that are less evident when seeing them on Zoom for short periods.

When kids experience physical or emotional trauma, the damage and hurt can be very deep for them and for their loved ones. Students from within our community of a wide age range have recently felt such despair that they have taken their own lives. These acts are beyond tragic. No one could be prepared for the aftermath of a child taking their life. Families request—and deserve—their privacy. It is out of respect that I have not spoken in detail about these circumstances, for it is not my place to do so.

I want to thank you for your ongoing efforts to keep our municipality open as we protect each other by wearing masks, maintaining social distance, and limiting our outings and size of social gatherings. As we put appropriate safety measures into place, we are moving forward with our plan to bring our students in Pre-K - Grade 2, the Whaley School, and elementary self-contained special education programs back into school buildings on November 16.

I want to be clear that parents have a choice in whether they send their student(s) back to in-person school. To that point, teams are working to expand learning opportunities as we seek to support the needs of all our students and families. While many parents have expressed a strong desire to get their kids back into school buildings, there are other parents who have shared they are not yet comfortable with that option.

For parents who are not likely to have their children return, we recommend enrolling in the ASD Virtual program as the preferred option. The ASD Virtual option will now include the addition of daily Zoom lessons in English language arts (ELA) and math by the virtual teacher for K-5. This is an effort to better support student learning in a distance environment.

For families who are enrolled in ASD in School, want to stay with their classroom teacher, and desire a “wait-and-see” approach to in-person school, a team of teachers and principals is finalizing a solution for video-based reading and math lessons to be posted in Canvas. While these video-based lessons may not be recorded by the classroom teacher, they will be available to students who are absent for a short period. More information will be forthcoming.

Our elementary principals and some members of our teaching and support staff have been working tirelessly the last several weeks to build individualized school safety plans and procedures. These plans outline mask wearing, physical distancing, hygiene protocols, and cleaning and disinfecting, as well as guidance on school pick up/drop off, recess, and COVID case response and notification. Teachers and school staff will train on these school-specific plans during the November 3 Districtwide in-service day. Each school’s health and safety plan will be posted here, for the public to also see, by November 4.

As staff reenter schools, safety protocols related to COVID are to be followed just as strictly as we would conduct other safety measures. When we are ready for students to reenter, PPE and sanitization supplies will be in place. As some staff have expressed concerns that PPE are not in classrooms, it may be helpful to know that supplies were pulled back earlier this fall when some of the items disappeared.

Again, I acknowledge the range of opinions around this decision and the valid concerns surrounding the rise in cases in our community. However, I am convinced by growing evidence in our own District and across the country, that students’ learning outcomes and other important social emotional needs are better served when they are physically in schools. During my weekly meetings with other leaders around the nation, trends shared by superintendents indicate that other large districts are also opting to bring young students back in recognition of the many challenges they face with online learning. Daycare programs, preschools, and tutoring programs are presently operating in our schools and across the municipality, demonstrating that with mitigation measures in place, childcare and education services can safely serve children and our community. I will add that the tutoring programs were initially met with trepidation around safety, but through proper care, the safety protocols in these programs are clearly working.

Our school opening plan takes a slow, measured approach informed by best practices from other Alaska school districts as well as large districts from across the country. Please know that members of the ASD leadership team and I meet frequently throughout the week with municipal and state health officials. ASD’s plan is in line with Municipal mandates, which call for mask wearing, physical distancing, limited indoor gatherings, and 50 percent capacity in buildings such as restaurants, bars, gyms, and theaters. During the first part of the back to school plan, we estimate that fewer than 25 percent of our total student population will occupy our 59 elementary schools. Fewer than 50 percent of students enrolled in each elementary school will be physically present during this first phase. This will allow principals and staff greater flexibility in implementing social distancing and other safety procedures.

As superintendent, I continue to be impressed by the level of detail, innovation, and professionalism our entire staff has put forth into preparing schools for this gradual, phased-in approach to bringing students back into classrooms. Your dedication to providing the best possible education for our students continues to be unmatched. This is especially true for our principals, teachers, and other school staff in elementary schools who are preparing for a return right now.

I know there will be a learning curve for staff, students, and our families, but one thing I have witnessed in the last eight months is that the entire ASD community is adaptable and resilient. I am confident that after a few days these in-school mitigation protocols will become second nature as they have in our programs presently operating in schools.

To get the most accurate count of how many students will return to schools, elementary principals and staff recently sent a survey to Pre-K – Grade 2 families. The survey will provide valuable information to school administrators as they adjust staff resources and refine distancing and mitigation measures. Please encourage families of Pre-K – Grade 2 students that haven’t taken the survey to do so. They can contact their school if they need the link to the online survey or other assistance.

In closing, the decision to return to school serves our students who are in their formative years, where learning is critical. These students are unable to direct their own learning at home, on a computer screen. An added benefit is that class sizes at these grade levels are already the smallest, which will assist our efforts to maintain social distancing. The ASD plan remains in accordance with our municipality’s emergency health mandates and other educational support services to children, both private and public. I am confident in, thankful for, and always impressed by ASD employees, for you have demonstrated a strong desire to support the District’s children through this entire pandemic. The experts say COVID is here to stay. We will have outbreaks, and when we do, we will manage them according to the guidance provided by our medical professionals.

Now though, we believe the time has come for us to begin bringing our kids back to school, while taking the necessary precautions to stay safe. It is time we, as a community, prioritize the return to school, just as we have already supported reopening efforts in other sectors of our community. Education is paramount to our collective health and well-being, and it is the foundation for continuing to build a robust economy in the Municipality of Anchorage.

Sincerely,

Deena M. Bishop, Ed.D.

Superintendent

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