Fairbanks officials are going through the process to decide if, when and how the district will open school for full-time, in-person learning.
“Hopefully we will be making some decisions this week and we will communicate that to the public as quickly as we can,” Superintendent Adham Schirg said this morning.
Fairbanks opened the school year in Learning Level 2, which has half of the students in the building for two days and learning remotely the other days. Officials decided to move to Learning Level 1 where students would attend in-person classes five days a week. That full-time in-person learning was set to begin last week, however a COVID-19 outbreak among students and staff forced the district to reconsider and remain at Learning Level 2.
The earliest the district could move to Level 1 is Oct. 19.
Last week the district met to discuss the process of when and how to return to full-time, in-person learning. The school board met with Union County Health Commissioner Dr. Jason Orcena.
Orcena said the last couple of weeks have been, “volatile within the community, not just for the county in general, but also within our school age population.”
He said there has been a “pretty significant escalation” in the number of cases and the number of individuals exposed to COVID 19 over the last couple of weeks.
He said that while there has been an increase in school-age COVID-19 cases, he doesn’t believe the cases originate at school. He said it is “more likely” the cases begin at “unregulated social gatherings or with sports.”
He stressed that school districts cannot operate like a business and do not have a comprehensive testing strategy the way many businesses do.
“This is not a Union County issue. This is not a school district issue,” Orcena said. “This is a state and national issue for testing strategy, so is not because of a lack of effort.”
Orcena said that even with barriers like plexiglass and masks, which change the rates of transmission, those who have been within six feet of an infected individual for more than 15 minutes would need to quarantine.
“The only way a quarantine can be shortened, or actually not even required, is if a person was a case, was a case of COVID-19 and recovered, then they would not be subject to quarantine on subsequent exposure,” Orcena said.
Schirg said he and Orcena have discussed what the threshold for absentees would be.
Orcena said it comes down to “capacity for operations.”
“Staffing is a bigger consideration than students,” Schirg said.
He said the district’s capacity for operations becomes critical when 14-18% of staff is out for an extended period. He said current staff can fill in for some absent teachers, but when the number goes into the higher teens, it is difficult to operate the school effectively.
Schirg said the district historically struggles to fill substitute positions when the cold and flu season hits. He said the district’s substitutes are “extremely committed” to Fairbanks, but it is very limited. He said Fairbanks is competing against other districts that might be closer to the substitute’s home.
At the meeting, Schirg said he thinks it “makes a lot of sense from a timing standpoint” to move to Learning Level 1 at the beginning of the second quarter. He said the longer the district stays in anything other than Level 1, the more likely the district will need to “look at some other phases of employment.”
He said he has “a lot of concern” about waiting until after the holidays.
Board President Mark Lippencott said he is concerned about a projected “uptick from the holidays.” He said he also worries about “bouncing people back and forth” from level to level.
“If we end up having to go from Level 1 back to Level 2 or even if we ended up being fully remote, instead of looking at every two weeks, I would prefer we step back a little bit during this time and I would probably stay at whatever level we were at,” Lippencott said.
The superintendent said he has been asked what has changed in the district’s decision-making process.
“I think our circumstances, where we are sitting as a state, as a local community in late May, early June has changed where we are today. Our understanding, our knowledge, the things we have worked through that have been successful, things that have not been successful — all of those things have changed and I think it is important that we reflect and go, ‘Ok, what can we do better and what works for us?’”
He said he is talking to and with parents and staff and surveying them about what is working well and what can be done better.
Schirg said the decision to return to school will be about “weighing risk.”
“You know there is lower socioeconomic, lower socioemotional, academic risk being in school,” Schirg said. “There is a higher health and safety risk.”
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