Fairbanks education associations express concern over children returning to in-person schooling

Published: Dec. 18, 2020 at 4:14 PM AKST
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - In a release sent out Friday afternoon the Fairbanks Education Association (FEA), the Education Support Staff Association (ESSA), and the Fairbanks Principals Association (FPA) expressed their concerns about children in the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District returning to in-person schooling as soon as January 19, 2021. These organizations represent over 1,500 employees throughout the district.

While the release stated that the ‘FPA, FEA, and ESSA remain committed to returning to in-person instruction’ it also expressed concern about the climbing levels of COVID-19 cases in the community and the fact that the school district is still operating in the ‘Red Zone’ as outlined in the Alaska Smart Start guidelines and reinforced by CDC recommendations.

“As a member driven association, FEA has consistently said over and over, move slow to move fast, follow CDC guidelines, and respect the endless hours of work we’ve done to develop the state and local Smart Start plans,” said Sandi Ryan, President of FEA. “FEA’s members have expressed their concerns in surveys and public testimony before the school board time and time again. Unfortunately, that message was rejected by the FNSBSD School Board.”

The referenced school board meeting began with the board going over comments from community members ranging from parents and teachers to health workers and students. The majority of these community testimonials urged the board to not follow through with its proposed plan for a variety of reasons, such as concerns over the safety of students, the increased likelihood of viral spread outside of schools, the inconsistency the reopening of school will cause in the lives of students, and when school potentially closes again due to another outbreak.

“Prior to the Special Meeting, the FPA board submitted a statement to the School Board recognizing all of the work at the state level by medical professionals to develop the guidelines, as well as the collaborative effort by educators creating plans to meet those guidelines at the local level,” said FPA President Sarah Gillam. “The FPA board acknowledged the integral role schools play in our community on many levels and believes that following the state guidance is essential to meet the safety and learning needs of our school communities.”

The release went on to state, “The School Board’s decision disregarded the recommendations from both representatives from Fort Wainwright Army Base and Eielson Air Force base to keep school remote at current infection levels because of concerns over the impact of military mission readiness as well as the recommendations from FNSB Risk Management and contact tracing managers for lack of resources and adequate safety plans for the forthcoming rapid reopening.”

Colonel Christopher Ruga, school board post representative for Fort Wainwright, said both he and fellow board member Colonel Stuart Williamson of Eielson Air Force Base have been consistent in their support of COVID mitigation plans that fall within CDC guidelines, and opposition to those that do not.

According to Ruga both installations, Fort Wainwright and Eielson, have documented cases of child-to-child COVID transmission, and child-to-parent transmission.

“At both installations we’ve had instances where that child-to-parent transmission has impacted our mission because we’ve had to quarantine or isolate or some combination thereof, service members - be it airmen, or soldiers here at Fort Wainwright - that prevented them from doing their jobs. So from our perspective, we want to avoid any increases in those scenarios,” said Ruga.

Colonel Ruga has been contacted by faculty and staff of Arctic Light Elementary school, who are also spouses of service members, with concerns about the effects reopening schools will have even on families who choose not to send their children back. To that point, Ruga said “Even if they don’t send their children back, the mission of the installations will be impacted because they will potentially be transmission back to spouses, spouses to units, [and] units impacting mission - and that is a significant concern for some of our spouses as well.”

The ESSA, FPA, and FEA ended their statement with the hope that there is, “a robust planning process that will maintain CDC and Alaska Smart Start guidelines in classrooms at every school in the District, with hopes that the School Board will take a more measured, cautious, and planned approach to safety protocols and advice from medical experts prior to January 19th .”

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