FNSBSD Students Back in Classrooms in October

Sep 16, 2020

Public schools in the Fairbanks area are on track to open classrooms to elementary students on October 5 and middle school students October 19. The Board of Education for the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District had another late-running meeting late night to hear conflicting testimony from parents, teachers and students. But the issues for returning high school students were too complicated for the board to pick one of two plans and the board rejected both of them.

Assistant Superintendent Kate LaPlaunt (lah-PLAHNT) started the explanation of the K to six plan.

“The biggest change for the learning day would be that they are at school ….or go outside for an outside learning break.”     

The board heard testimony from teachers worried about moving from pod to pod to deliver instruction, possibly cross-contaminating the children. There was also testimony from parents worried about children bringing disease home, but more comments from parents wanting children to resume the social and learning benefits from going back to school.

Superintendent Karen Gaborik explained the plans have built-in quarantine formulas if students contract COVID-19.

“With the cohort model, if we have one positive case – a cohort is approximately 35 students – so we’re hoping to keep it to 35 students who would need to be quarantined.”

The October dates allow for the district’s school bus contractor, First Student, enough time to arrange drivers for 120 elementary routes.

Dozens of staff members, teachers, parents and even doctors have worked on the return to school plans, since April, trying to fit puzzle pieces like working parents, school lunches, athletics, and the state’s Red, Yellow and Green operational zones into the models.

Each plan assumes that children will not return to the classroom until conditions are in the state’s defined Yellow or Green operational zone. Currently the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District is in the Red operational zone, and children are learning from home. The state Department of Education and Early Development uses an average of fewer than 10 daily cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people as one of the standards.

Colonel Stuart Williamson says the change in school start times and bus times complicates life at Fort Wainwright and Eielson Air Force Base.

“For military members, the duty day starts around 7:30, with the later start times, that may drive a before-school care issue for kids.”

For middle schools, only half of the students will go to school on any given day, spending the other days learning from home. After lengthy debate on the elementary school model, the board quickly approved the model to return middle school students to the classrooms on October 19.

High schools have much larger student bodies, so the administration developed plans to have only a quarter of the kids in the building at a time. Option 1 would have students in-person one day per week and learn remotely on the other four days. Option 2 continues remote learning.

But issues of social and emotional development of students, whether there is enough PPE for staff, and if students could comply with hygiene and physical-distancing requirements complicated the board debate.

Over the summer, a large team of volunteers worked on an "A/B" plan to have 50% of students in classes each day on a rotating basis. Administration staff did not present that plan to the board because it had too many people mingling together. But the board asked the administration to reconsider it.

They postponed debate on any high school plans and will take the issue up at the October 6 board meeting.