Citing a “significant increase of both COVID-19 cases and quarantines,” Fairbanks School District is making some changes, at least in the short term.
On Sunday evening, Fairbanks Superintendent Adham Schirg made the decision to move the high school to a full remote option through the Thanksgiving holiday break. Initially the decision was to be in remote learning Monday and Tuesday, “to allow for case investigations and contact tracing to occur.”
Schirg said that as the investigation progressed, it became clear that continuing full remote through the holiday break was, “the most prudent move for the health and safety of our staff and students.”
As of Tuesday, the district had eight confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 149 staff or students quarantined across the district.
“We expect these numbers to increase over the next 24-48 hours,” Schirg told the school board Monday evening.
He said the increase in cases and quarantines is primarily in the high school.
“Currently, we have approximately 30% of high school students quarantined and expect an increase over the next several days,” Schirg said.
He explained that it is difficult to provide any consistency with that many students out of the classroom. He said by moving everyone to remote learning, all students get the same educational experience.
Because the outbreak is primarily at the high school, Fairbanks Elementary and Middle schools will stay at Learning Level 1 through Tuesday.
“This is subject to change based on new information,” Schirg warned.
Last week was the district’s first on Learning Level 1. Through the first month of school, students were in a hybrid learning model. In October, the district began transitioning to a model that has all students in the classroom four days a week.
Additionally, the district has paused all sports and extracurricular activities. Schirg explained that, “we are seeing evidence of spread in our athletic programs.”
He said the winter sports are spreading the virus in a way the fall sports did not.
The superintendent said the district’s nursing team, administrators and support staff have all been pulled into the COVID-19 process to do things like tracing, communication and planning.
“I cannot put a number of man hours this has taken this year, in particular this week,” Schirg said. “As I shared earlier this week, I am doing all COVID-19 all the time.”
Schirg said that over the next several days, officials will connect with staff and parents to discuss current data, operations and options. Officials are also asking parents and community members to participate in an online, Zoom conversation at 7 p.m. Thursday.
Schirg said the full remote option makes sense right now, “but it’s not where we want to be long term.”
He said he hopes getting community input will help the district make decisions for after the Thanksgiving break.
Schirg said Learning Level 1, “is the most consistent academic and social environment” and “provides consistent support for our families.”
The problem, he said, is that “with increasing cases, we will increase the chance for school transmission, quarantines and absences.” He said that in that model, the district “cannot achieve distancing in most school environments.”
He told board members he is concerned about staffing levels. He said he is projecting the district will need an additional four to six staff members just to cover for absent teachers.
“Our staff does a great job covering vacancies, but sustainability is an issue for an extended period of time,” Schirg told the board.
He said returning to a hybrid model would allow for social distancing and make transportation “significantly safer.”
“This does help with the number of quarantined students and is another layer of mitigation again school-based transmission,” Schirg said.
He said the challenges with hybrid are similar to those with remote learning — “the inconsistencies across experiences students have with academics.”
“As a leadership team, we would have to review instructional practices to help ensure expectations are being met and incorporate the feedback parents shared through
our earlier survey,” Schirg said.
The superintendent said a full remote model would “provide the most consistent model for all individuals since cases and quarantining at school would not be in play.”
“However, we all know that being in school is the most beneficial space for our students,” Schirg said. “This also put tremendous pressure on families. As I have stated throughout the summer and fall, we would only go totally remote if there are operational needs or it is imposed from the state.”
Schirg said there is a lot to consider — academics, safety, emotional health, transportation, community health — that goes into making decisions.
“We had to look at where we are and make decisions that are in the best interest of these often competing interests,” Schirg said.
He added, “They are complex problems because they deal with people’s children, people’s lives, they deal with students and their families.”
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