August 3, 2020
Alaska public schools exist because they are the most effective places to facilitate and foster student learning. These facilities are safe harbors for students, congregation points for public gatherings, and they provide connection to the world outside of our communities. Perhaps most importantly, our schools are where our teachers and education support professionals excel in their mission to provide every student with the opportunity to learn every single day.
There is nowhere Alaska educators would rather be on the first day of the fall semester than back in their schools and classrooms, working with students. Tragically, the very reasons in-person education is so successful are the same reasons we must approach reopening our schools with extreme caution and close adherence to scientifically-grounded recommendations.
Teaching requires innumerable interactions, individual attention, and often, close proximity in order to demonstrate a process or assist when a correction is necessary. COVID-19 has turned these common education practices into possibly dangerous, even life threatening contacts for educators and students. While protective measures are outlined in the Alaska DEED Smart Start 2020 guidance, the Dunleavy Administration has issued no statewide mandates for reopening schools, Personal Protective Equipment, or other mitigation strategies, resulting in a patchwork of different approaches from district to district.
Given the diversity and geography of Alaska, many districts may be able to open their schools completely with little to no potential for community spread of COVID-19. Those districts should retain their ability to make that decision provided they can ensure the safety of staff and students. Larger districts with more mobile populations and greater rates of infection should adopt more stringent requirements before opening their schools to even part-time instruction.
Research on the novel coronavirus continues to advance and NEA-Alaska will update its guidelines to align with new scientific findings, best practices, and fact-based recommendations. With the information available as of this writing, NEA-Alaska believes that the absolute preconditions for reopening schools should meet the following minimum criteria:
- A scientific consensus that the COVID-19 coronavirus has been sufficiently contained in your community and that the local health infrastructure can effectively address current and future outbreaks.
- Specific protections have been put in place to keep the virus under control and protect students and staff.
- Plans are in place to ensure continuous learning for all students.
In addition, NEA-Alaska believes that all districts in Alaska should adopt the following policies and procedures prior to reopening schools in order to protect students, staff, and their communities at large.
- Districts must put measures in place to protect all Alaskans, which includes mitigating risk of infection and preventing needless illness and death. Districts should mandate all current recommendations from the CDC and the Department of Health and Social Services in every school appropriate to the area’s level of COVID-19 activity.
- Districts must have on hand and provide all employees and students with the necessary materials and PPE to keep them safe.
- Districts must work with public health professionals in determining when it is safe for students and staff to return to school based on science and data.
- Districts must solicit and take into account feedback from staff and parents regarding reopening plans and mitigation strategies prior to in-person lessons.
- Districts must continue to employ all educators and support professionals in order to ensure continued learning and minimize the economic impacts of mass layoffs.
- Districts must make accommodations for employees whose age or underlying health conditions place them in high risk category.
The safety of Alaska public school students, educators, their families, and the communities in which they live are the primary concerns of NEA-Alaska. Our association believes that learning will continue even if classroom instruction is delayed. The reopening of our public schools should be based on the recommendations of infectious disease specialists, public health officials, and healthcare providers. Political rhetoric or preference should have no bearing on the decision of a district to reopen a public education facility.
NEA-Alaska is fully aware of the consequences of an extended school closure and we will do everything in our power to keep our promise to Alaska students; an excellent education for every child, every day. Together, we can address and overcome the economic and academic setbacks facing Alaskans. What we cannot reverse, or forgive, is the loss of a single life resulting from a rushed reopening of a public school.
The members of NEA-Alaska remain steadfast in their resolve to educate the children of Alaska. We will continue to reach, teach, and inspire our students, but we must ensure that we can protect ourselves, our families, and our communities.