When public elementary schools open next week, some won’t be allowing students to use playground structures, and face masks will be required both indoors and outdoors.
“Each school is working through the many steps and processes to create safe return to school plans, following the CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and Alaska Smart Start guidance to the best of their abilities,” Yumi McCulloch, director of public relations at the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District, wrote in an email.
“At many schools, student use of outside equipment is a topmost priority, but not before establishing safe routines throughout the classrooms, hallways and other areas,” she wrote. “Students will still have access to outdoor activities. Playground equipment use may be limited depending on each schools’ plans.”
The face mask requirement outdoors is a districtwide policy, according to McCulloch. CDC guidelines for schools state that “masks may be considered” during recess.
School principals are deciding whether students can use playground equipment. McCulloch said there is no districtwide policy.
The CDC characterizes playgrounds as “hard to keep safe,” especially when crowded. COVID-19 “can spread when young children touch contaminated objects, and then touch their eyes, nose, or mouth,” federal guidelines state.
Pearl Creek and North Pole elementary schools are making playground equipment off limits. Anderson Elementary School has canceled recess altogether due to the shorter learning day, according to the school principal.
Arctic Light, Salcha and Weller elementary schools will be allowing children to play on the playground structures, according to school staff.
The playground rules at Hunter, Anne Wien and Midnight Sun elementary schools are still undecided. Other elementary schools did not respond to calls and emails.
Thad Keener, principal at Arctic Light, said whether or not to allow students to use playground equipment is a hot topic right now among school principals.
“You can’t have three classes of first graders all on the equipment. That’s not safe,” he said.
Keener said his school will conduct recess with smaller, staggered groups. They will be allowed to use playground structures.
Arctic Light is located on Fort Wainwright, and the military community puts a high value on physical activity, Keener said. As a Title 1 school, Arctic Light has extra staff to help with playground supervising.
A Title 1 school is a school in which children from low-income families make up at least 40 percent of enrollment. As such, the school receives additional federal funding.
“Recess is actually a very educational time,” Keener said. “It’s important.”
Michael Angaiak, principal at Anne Wien Elementary School, said he is still thinking about whether to allow students to access playground equipment.
For now, because it’s cold and children are wearing gloves, it’s probably safe, he said. When the temperatures start to rise and the gloves come off, Angaiak is worried about COVID-19 spreading by touch from contaminated surfaces.
And if he lets students use the playground structures now, how will they react when it’s prohibited later?
“We’re still putting our plans together on that,” Angaiak said.
Joanne Vanfleteren, principal at Midnight Sun Elementary School, said she wants to decide after in-person learning starts.
“We are in the process of planning,” she wrote in an email. “The first week back will enable us to see just what returning in-person looks like, what the challenges are and where to go from there.”
Mark Winford is the principal at North Pole Elementary School. His school lacks the staffing to permit students to use playground structures, he said.
“In my opinion, it cannot be cleaned efficiently between use (a cleaning resource and people power issue), and it is hard for students to socially distance on the equipment,” he wrote in an email.
According to the latest Pearl Creek Elementary School newsletter, the playground structures will be off limits and the school will offer “outdoor opportunities for the students that ensure 6 feet of social distance while also allowing equipment that can be cleaned after each use.”
Shawna Henderson is the principal at Pearl Creek.
“I feel strongly that all children need the opportunity to play and be outside and I know that each school is working through providing these opportunities in the way it makes sense for them,” she wrote in an emailed answer to questions.
“We are very fortunate here at Pearl Creek to have an extensive trail system and lots of green (or white at the moment) space for students to enjoy. Teachers will be utilizing the trails and space to provide students with the opportunity to be outside and to play.”
Henderson said the policy could change as educators learn more about coronavirus transmission.
About half of elementary schools contacted on Tuesday did not respond in time for this story.
Contact staff writer Amanda Bohman at 459-7545. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMborough.