Fairbanks ‘Safely Reopening of Schools’ group calls for delay of in-person learning

Published: Jan. 18, 2021 at 6:39 PM AKST
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) -The group known as “Safe Reopening of Schools,” or S.R.S., is asking the Fairbanks North Star Borough School Board to delay the start of in-person learning.

S.R.S. formed a little over two weeks ago after students, parents, caregivers and school staff, voiced concerns over the opening of some schools this week. The group wants to see schools re-opened, but only after the CDC and Alaska Smart Start guidelines can be met in each classroom.

The Fairbanks North Star School Board voted 4-3 in favor of returning to in-person learning for all those students who want to, during a December 14 meeting. At the time some board members in favor expressed worry about the social emotional wellbeing of students spending so much time at home.

On January 19 kindergarten and elementary students through 8th grade will have the optional return to in-person school, followed by Middle School students on January 25 and Highschool students on February 1.

“I think the main goal is just for [the school board] to reconsider the safety of students and staff and really hold themselves accountable to the guidelines they had set before that they are no longer following.” Amber Eikenberry, an 11th grader participating in S.R.S. explained. “Look at the numbers and all of the recommendations that have already been established and turn to those, the facts, before just jumping to open schools.”

Eikenberry is referring to the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development released the Alaska Smart Start 2020 restart and reentry guidelines for schools. According to those standards, Fairbanks is currently in the high risk, “red zone.”

S.R.S student leader and Lathrop Senior Ezra Adasiak is the Chair for Region 6 student council. Region 6 student council consists of student advocates from schools in Fairbanks, Delta, North Pole and Eielson. During their meeting last week Adasiak put forth a resolution asking other members if they wanted to return to in person classes.

“The students voted to oppose returning to school on February 1st,” Adasiak said, “There were a wide range of perspectives presented and not everyone voted in opposition to returning, but that is the place we got to.”

Adasiak is worried about his quality of education if teachers are stretched to thin. His teachers will have to teach both remote students and in-person students.

“Splitting the resources like that makes it difficult for anyone to get a good education,” Adasiak said. “Teachers are already struggling with amount of prep time they are being given and having to teach both to an in-person and a remote audience… means the resources are just so diluted.”

Another concern is the impact returning to in-person classes may have on those students who are already back at school. Currently the district is offering limited services including special educations students, children without home internet and at-risk students.

“If we go back in person…and it gets closed again, that not only takes away the opportunity to go in-person for the people who have been remote learning but it also takes it away from the people who are able to go into the building right now, in very small numbers who need to be there, who need the support, who need internet access, other resources,” Eikenberry explained.

S.R.S. participant, parent, school teacher and community member, Christine Dyer worries about children having to make a choice between their education and their family’s health.

“We don’t want the students who choose to stay home for safety reasons to feel like the people in the classroom are going to get something different or better,” Dyer said. “Then feel the need to go against what they need to do for their families to come into the building.”

Dyer is worried about the future. She says by pulling time from school staff to figure out how to follow CDC guidelines will result in teachers having to push something aside. For her, it will be planning for next year.

“We don’t want any student in the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District to come back in August of 2021 feeling like they are behind,” Dryer said. “I mean we all just lived through a pandemic. So we as school staff would love to be able to take this time to really plan ahead for what students are going to need from us next year.”

But what about returning when teachers have had the option to receive a COVID-19 vaccine?

“Just because teachers have a vaccine, doesn’t mean it is safe for everyone to come in the building,” Dryer said. “So I shy away from making educator vaccines our main goal.”

Adasiak said he wants to return in-person classes too, but not until safety measures are taken.

“One avenue is changing the language in the motion they passed, to specify that CDC and Smart Start guidelines will be followed explicitly, instead of the best of their abilities,” Adasiak said.

According to the school district’s website, CDC guidelines will be followed to the best of the school’s ability reading: ‘Move to begin accelerated return to school plan beginning on Tuesday, January 19, 2021 though Monday, February 1, 2021 for families and students who want to return in-person, maintaining the options for remote learning, eLearning, and BEST Homeschool, and acknowledging schools will meet Smart Start and CDC guidelines to the best of their abilities.’

“By opening the doors we are symbolically telling families in the communities, ‘this is safe,’ but we know we can’t make it 100% safe,” Dyer said.

Another option Adasiak suggests is overturning the vote all together and conceptualizing a new plan for returning to school.

“I don’t feel as if the school board’s vote echoes the feelings and concerns of the majority of the community and I really think that is their ultimate duty as people elected to represent us,” Adasiak said. “I urge them, if any of them are hearing this, to listen to student voices, listen to teacher voices. Listen to community voices and really push for something that is going to be safe and equitable for people even if it isn’t the most popular among their primary constituents.”

Since the school year began in remote learning status, parents and students have brought up issues with remote learning too. Problems like too much screen time, low quality education compared to in-person, and social isolation.

The four Fairbanks School Board members who voted in favor of opening schools to in-person learning were Jennifer Luke, Matthew Sampson, Maggie Matheson and April Smith. We reached out to them on Saturday for comment but have not heard back as of news time Monday.

The School Board President, Tim Doran, voted against returning to in-person learning and said the issues brought forth by S.R.S. are valid concerns.

“The whole issue of education this year and how schooling looks have been filled with concerns of all perspectives,” Doran said. “There have not been easy answers of what to do.”

Erin Morotti, the School Board Treasurer voted against re-opening schools. She said she was sadden, surprised and concerned by the outcome of the vote, but will respect the results.

“The December 14th motion to open school sites for all students wanting to return was passed by a majority of the board and, therefore, we must keep moving forward with respect and resilience,” Morotti wrote in an email. “As a community, we voted in the elected officials serving on the school board to make these decisions and as a community we need to come together to continue to keep our children safe to include masking up, being socially distant, washing hands, and checking in on each other in a safe manner.”

Moving forward, Doran said the board will be watching carefully on how things progress. He understands there will be challenges and students, teachers and staff will have to be innovative, creative and collaborative.

“If it’s working, we are all going to be thumbs up! And say hey, let’s keep going. If we are running into problems then I am convinced that we will all, the board, the administration, staff families the whole works, will try and figure out how to meet those challenges,” Doran said. “As we have been flexible for nine months we will need to be flexible for six [more].”

The Safe Reopening of Schools group has organized a socially-distanced picketing event January 19 from 4:00 -7:00 p.m. in front of the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District Administrative Center at 520 5th Avenue. More information on that can be found at BIT.LY/SRS2011

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