Fairbanks School District Chief Administrator Karen Melin gives update on bussing, COVID

Published: Mar. 18, 2022 at 5:03 PM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - In February, the Fairbanks North Star Borough School Board voted to close Joy, Anderson and Nordale Elementary Schools, repurposing the latter for various district programs.

According to Chief School Administrator Karen Melin, this does not appear to require expanding or contracting bus routes. “What we might see changing is the amount of time a student might need to stay on the bus to complete their route.”

Any changes to the bus routes will be made during the summer and fall, when school enrollment numbers are determined.

After experiencing a shortage of drivers for much of the school year, the district has fully restored 82 bus routes. “Getting bus drivers has been a historic challenge,” Melin said. “For us to be able to get new drivers in our current reality, I think, is very encouraging.”

The district is currently working on its budget for next year under the watchful scrutiny of the public. “There’s been a lot of feedback on each topic that’s brought up,” Melin elaborated.

One recent item of controversy involves a discussion among the school board about funding certain high school library staff with CARES Act money in order to make room in the general fund for additional music staff. But according to Melin, “It’s a fluid conversation. Board members are saying, ‘What about this? What about that?’ and so they’re kind of compiling a list of priorities.”

Current budget woes will also lead to changes in high school graduations.

With traditional venue the Carlson Center not being used, other options are being considered including Lathrop’s Hering auditorium. “Lathrop is an auditorium that we have that we own as a district and we don’t have to pay any money for,” Melin explained. “We don’t have to pay for cleaning or audio/visual stuff like we do at the Carlson Center.”

While Melin acknowledges this is a painful thing for some community families, she says this is one among many difficult fiscal decisions that need to be made.

Melin also gave an update on COVID-19 in the school district, saying, “It’s starting to feel a little bit more like normal, whatever normal looks like now.”

In January, COVID-19 took a toll on staffing and attendance at schools around the community. “At its peak, it was a challenge, no doubt about that,” Melin said.

Staff absences required district employees to cover for each other, even members of the school district administration. “We deployed people from this building out to fill in in places where they were just really struggling to cover all of the spots,” Melin continued. “I got to go to a kindergarten class during that really difficult time.”

She said there’s been a dramatic drop in district cases since then. “We have been very pleased with what we’ve seen in the last month to five weeks in the COVID cases. We’re seeing a lot more consistency in attendance, [including] consistency in teacher attendance.”

Melin discussed what’s been learned from the pandemic, including the value of personal hygiene and staying home when sick. “When I was teaching, I would have to be pretty sick to stay home and make it worth getting a sub and sub plans and all that,” she admitted. “I think we’ve learned from that, that that’s probably not the best way to approach things.”

She explained that testing sites and at-home testing kits continue to be available, and plans remain in place in case another surge in cases comes along. “I hope we never have to face that kind of challenge again, but we faced it and we conquered it.”

An ongoing dashboard of COVID cases in the district can be found here.

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