School bus

A First Student school bus travels along Geist Road Tuesday afternoon, August 22, 2017. 

Local public education leaders agreed to crack open labor agreements to go over safety provisions as plans continue for opening schools to in-person learning starting next week, according to Superintendent Karen Gaborik of the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District.

The Board of Education met Monday night to discuss a demand by two labor unions representing about 1,500 public education workers to update their contracts to account for worker safety during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Fairbanks Education Association and the Education Support Staff Association want to discuss transfer and reassignment policies, long-term leave, workplace injuries, sick leave bank access, disability leave, Family and Medical Leave Act provisions and other issues impacting education workers, according to December letters to the school district.

“The district is ready to meet as soon as both sides understand the expected scope and purpose of negotiations,” reads a statement by Gaborik provided by the school district Tuesday afternoon. “Meetings have not yet been scheduled, as the response emails were just sent this morning. We’re unable to determine at this point how quickly the process will unfold.”

The two unions are operating under contracts that expire June 30, 2022.

The school board met via the online platform Zoom and went into executive session for almost two hours to discuss the unions’ demands.

When they came out of executive session, board President Tim Doran said the school district’s chief negotiator was given direction from the board for responding to the labor groups. He did not elaborate, nor did any school board member comment before the meeting was adjourned.

Elementary schools open Tuesday to any students wishing to attend, middle schools open the following week, and high schools open Feb. 1. Most students in the Fairbanks area have been shut out of school buildings since March of last year because of COVID-19 spread in the borough.

The school openings come despite the objections of many public education workers who have been pushing to keep students in remote learning until COVID-19 transmission rates are reduced to an average of fewer than 10 new cases a day in the borough.

According to the state of Alaska’s latest case count summary, the Fairbanks North Star Borough’s average daily case rate per 100,000 people is 41.19, which is higher than Anchorage, Juneau and the Kenai Peninsula Borough but lower than the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, which has been holding in-person classes since August.

The school district has been in the operational high-risk zone for virus transmission since the average daily case rate in the Fairbanks area rose above 10 almost five months ago.

Tens of thousands of students in Alaska are returning to school this month. Districts in Anchorage and Juneau are also phasing in students. The Juneau district is bringing in students a few days a week, while the Anchorage district is bringing in the lower elementary grades and high-needs students five days a week.

Public testimony was light at Monday’s special Fairbanks school board meeting. Doran read three letters. One was from a teacher who retired due to concerns over COVID-19 exposure and who called for the district to provide more options for education staff with family and health concerns.

Another letter writer discouraged the board from reneging on its narrow 4-3 vote to open schools, saying that at this point the district ought to at least try to offer in-person education.

Coronavirus case rates have generally been on the decline in the Fairbanks borough and in the state since spikes in early December.

Fairbanks Memorial Hospital listed eight COVID-19 patients as of Tuesday morning, according to a hospital spokeswoman. None is in the intensive care unit, according to Kelly Atlee, director of public relations.

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