Fairbanks, Alaska to open schools in the face of deadly COVID-19 pandemic

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By Samela Jones

The Fairbanks North Star Borough School District  (FNSBSD) has decided to begin in-person classes beginning on January19, 2021. This decision is opposed by all of the unions representing school teachers, school support workers and principals.

The school district claims that the return to school is “optional.” However, peer pressure of students to return to school to socialize, pressure on parents to allow students to return to school so that parents may work additional hours, and other factors will accelerate the return of many elementary and, then, middle and high school students to return to dangerous classrooms.

Fairbanks public  schools are in a red-zone of high community transmission of COVID-19.

Unions oppose re-opening

The Fairbanks Education Association, the Fairbanks Principals Association and the Education Support Staff Association agree, as stated in a recent joint press release that, “All students in the FNSBSD should remain in remote learning status while the district is in the high risk zone for COVID-19 transmission.” According to the Fairbanks Daily-Miner newspaper3, the risk management program for the school district is the same as the plan established by the state of Alaska. Moreover, the current COVID-19 infection rate in the Fairbanks North Star Borough is six-time greater than the threshold required to cease in person instruction.

Nothing has been done in the schools to address ventilation of classrooms in NSBSD schools. Additionally the new School Board policy does not require social distancing. Eighteen teachers and support staff have resigned from FNSBSD schools, all citing COVID 19 as their reasons. The district employs 1500 public education workers in 35 schools. This includes teachers, support staff and administrators.

Trump slate wins school board election 

The campaign to have a board of education vote to reopen schools intensified after the October 6, 2020 Fairbanks North Star Borough municipal elections, where a slate of conservative Tea Party-style, Trump supporters ran for school board and won.  They took up the mantle of “reopening.”

State of Alaska protocols violated

In early summer of 2020, the State of Alaska released its 2020 Safe Start protocols for school districts to use as a framework for schools to use as guidance during the COVID-19 pandemic. Fairbanks is a high risk, red-level district, based on its 14-day and 7-day average COVID case counts (35.1 and 80.4 cases, respectively). The 2020 Alaska Smart Start framework suggests that schools located in communities with high level of community transmission of coronavirus:

Establish and maintain communication with local and state authorities to determine current mitigation levels in your community.

• Implement multiple social distancing strategies with EXTENDED SCHOOL DISMISSALS, closing school buildings to students.

• Cancel all field trips, inter-group events, sports events and extracurricular activities. • Implement distance learning until minimal community spread and local health officials recommend school re-opening.

• District may decide that even in a high risk environment, select vulnerable students may need in-person education in very small cohorted groups.

• Follow guidelines from local and state health authorities on school reopening5.

CDC guidelines

Additionally, the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has provided its own set of guidelines for best practices for public schools during the pandemic. Again, remembering that Fairbanks is a high community transmission area, the CDC guidelines state:

If local health officials have determined there is substantial transmission of COVID-19 within the community, they will provide guidance to administrators on the best course of action for child care programs or schools. These strategies are expected to extend across multiple programs, schools, or school districts within the community.

You may need to consider extended school dismissals (e.g. dismissals for longer than 2 weeks). This longer-term, and likely broader-reaching, dismissal strategy is intended to slow transmission rates of COVID-19 in the community. During extended school dismissals, also cancel extracurricular group activities, school-based afterschool programs, and large events (e.g., assemblies, spirit nights, field trips, and sporting events). Remember to implement strategies to ensure the continuity of education (e.g., distance learning) as well as meal programs and other essential services for students.

The FNSBSD has also allowed sporting events to occur during the fall  sports season and is continuing into the winter season, according to Erin Poland, executive assistant to the FNSBSD superintendent, Dr. Karen Gaborik. This flies in the face of the guidelines of Alaska’s Smart Start 2020 plan and the United States’ CDC for schools operating in the red zone of high community transmission of COVID. Even the University of Alaska, Fairbanks has stopped its winter basketball season because of COVID-19.

Reckless COVID-19 policies

The actions of the FNSB school board are in line with the reckless policy of the other school district in Fairbanks, the Yukon-Koyukuk School District (YKSD). This smaller district operates nine schools in the Unincorporated Borough of the state along with a correspondence school with offices statewide. Since September, no fewer than four teachers and their families have been infected with COVID-19 in YKSD schools and teacher housing. YKSD did not adopt the Smart Start 2020 State of Alaska guidelines nor did it comply with the CDC guidelines. Instead, when there is a COVID case in its school or in the district office in Fairbanks, the district closes the facility for two weeks and simply reopens, irrespective of the level of COVID-19 presence in the school or in the village or city where the schools are located. The district has no posted COVID-19 mitigation plan on its website, www.yksd.com. As in the case of FNSBSD, YKSD is practicing herd immunity, allowing teachers and students to repeatedly become infected. All of its nine schools have been closed at least once during the first four months of the school year, and some have been closed for COVID infections on three occasions!

Infection rates among highest in nation

Alaska’s COVID-19 infection rate is one of the highest in the nation. Infection rates in Native Alaskan villages continue to rise, with village schools serving as hubs for large scale COVID-19 infections, such as in the Alaskan Native Villages of Arctic Village, Chevak, and in the Lower Kuskokwim region.

COVID-19 infections are lifelong. It is irresponsible to open schools when there is widespread community transmission of the novel coronavirus in Alaska. Teachers, students and parents in FNSBSD and in the YKSD schools must push back and defend the lives of themselves and their families and communities and villages. If this is not done, more teachers, students and family members will become infected with COVID-19, and that is an outcome we must oppose.

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