Back to school

Michael Schaeffer, sophomore English teacher at West Valley High School, put up a Superman poster as decoration for his Zoom meetings with colleagues. He said he might change the poster to something different for meeting online with students. Amanda Bohman/News-Miner

The school board voted Tuesday to open elementary and middle schools to students next month but there’s a big caveat: the spread of COVID-19 in the borough must slow down.

“We just have to keep watching those numbers and see what they do,” said Dr. Mishelle Nace, medical adviser to the Fairbanks North Star Borough Board of Education.

Fairbanks is a COVID-19 hot spot in Alaska with a two-week daily average case count that is rising.

As of Tuesday, the two-week average was 17 new cases per day — twice as high as the two-week daily average on Aug. 21, which is the day after the 2020-21 school year started.

According to the school district director of communications, there are nine known COVID-19 cases among students or staff at the district, which is allowing high school sports teams to conduct practices using strict pandemic mitigation protocols. Two weeks ago, that number was four.

Students in the Fairbanks district are in remote learning status, and the school board voted to open elementary schools to students five days a week as soon as Oct. 5 and middle schools to students part-time as soon as Oct. 19. They delayed a vote on when and how to open high schools.

The school bus contractor will begin mobilizing right away to prepare to provide transportation to elementary students in less than three weeks, according to Ryan Hinton, the district’s transportation coordinator.

The school district is currently in the red zone on its COVID-19 risk assessment matrix and schools will open only if the risk is lowered to the yellow or intermediate zone.

Hinton told the school board that drivers will need to be flown in from Seattle in short order and trained in the coming weeks due to a school bus driver shortage in Fairbanks.

For high schools, the school board was presented two options: open them to students one day per week, allowing the number of students in the buildings at one time to be reduced by 75%, or keep those secondary students in remote learning status through the end of the year.

School board members disliked both options and postponed a decision on when and how to open high schools until the next Board of Education meeting Oct. 6.

"The two options that are given to us. They are both completely unpalatable," school board member Matthew Sampson told the administration.

Contact staff writer Amanda Bohman at 459-7545. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMborough.