Are you comfortable sending your children to school during the coronavirus pandemic?
The Fairbanks school district wants to know.
Education leaders are planning for the 2020-2021 school year, and they have put out on an online survey, www.surveymonkey.com/r/N7NNV3J, asking about face masks, school buses, barriers to home learning and more.
A second, smaller survey is about whether school should start on Aug. 19 or Aug. 20: www.surveymonkey.com/r/N7V72MY.
Details about the coming school year are the subject of two special school board meetings July 20 and 27. There will be no public comment period at either meeting, according to Wendy Dominique, president of the Fairbanks North Star Borough Board of Education.
“The meetings are scheduled to finalize as much as we can,” she wrote in an email.
Education leaders are still deciding whether schools will open next month or if the term will begin, as it did when it ended in May, with online learning.
Plans that involve in-person classes, home learning and a hybrid of the two are underway.
Dominique said the district will heed public health mandates and guidelines by the state of Alaska and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Tom Klaameyer, the head of Alaska chapter of the National Education Association, said teachers are eager to return to their students but also concerned about the health risks of teaching in-person classes with COVID-19 spreading in some communities.
The disease has killed 17 Alaskans, hospitalized at least 80 and infected more than 1,200 people, according to the state coronavirus online information hub.
“By far, the members that I have heard back from have expressed concerns about going back too quickly, too soon and without enough safety precautions for students and employees,” said Klaameyer, who is also an Anchorage social studies teacher. “It’s really hard to connect with students and build those relationships to have successful learning when you are not together.”
He said teachers are preparing for at least part-time home learning and that it should be smoother than when the state shut down public schools in March and teachers quickly developed plans for remote learning.
“Most educators were not equipped well to do online education,” Klaameyer said. “I think a lot of teachers are taking a lot of time over the summer to prepare to be able to do that better.”
He said the pandemic is reshaping how teachers deliver education in ways that will probably have a lasting impact. Adapting to COVID-19 is spurring teachers to develop more technology skills.
“I know it’s an uncertain time and the road is not going to be smooth, but I foresee this ultimately ending up as a positive for public education,” Klaameyer said.
If schools reopen, students in the Fairbanks district are going to be asked to mask up and periodically help with cleaning and sanitizing. The school day is proposed to be reduced to five hours.
Under a plan forming at the Fairbanks school district, middle school and high school students would attend classes two to three days a week — learning from home the other days — while elementary students would continue with a five-day schedule. The school day would involve fewer but longer classes.
Officials are also preparing for a scenario in which public schools abruptly close, forcing students to switch to home learning.
The state of Alaska has set up a framework, Alaska Smart Start 2020, for determining when it’s safe to return to school, but leaders have yet to explain the conditions for a medium risk level and a high risk level.
Low risk is defined as no new cases for 14 days.
Rochelle Lindley, public information officer for the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, said more guidance is being developed.
“DEED and the Department of Health and Social Services are working on developing additional tools to assist districts in identifying their community risk level. Developing the Alaska Smart Start plans, including identifying risk levels, will continue to be a collaborative process,” she wrote in an email.
The school district’s survey about returning to school next month closes on Sunday.
The survey asks parents and other stakeholders what they think instruction should look like in the fall, if they are comfortable with their student helping by cleaning surfaces with sanitizing wipes, if they are comfortable with school buses allowing one student per seat and more.
The Catholic Schools of Fairbanks, the largest provider of private education in Fairbanks, will hold in-person classes starting Aug. 17, according to a fall 2020 school plan posted on Facebook.
The Catholic schools are also preparing to offer online learning, in part or entirely, if necessary.
Students and staff will be required to wear provided face masks or masks brought from home, according to the plan. Longer classes in fewer content areas are planned to help maintain physical distancing.
“As a Catholic school, we are dedicated to educating the whole child,” the plan states. “Interpersonal interactions are an integral part of our educational philosophy.
The plan cautions, however, that regulations “may evolve” as more information becomes available about COVID-19.
Contact staff writer Amanda Bohman at 459-7545. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMborough.