PALMER — The Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District is reaching out to families with students in Valley schools to ensure that residents are aware of the COVID-19 mitigation practices and procedures in place for the start of school next month.
Acting superintendent for MSBSD Luke Fulp briefed the Mat-Su Borough Assembly on Tuesday and was one of a handful of school district employees that manned a booth at Friday Fling in an effort to communicate with families.
“Communication is a huge part. Our planning efforts is really making sure that the community understands what it is that the MSBSD is doing. It’s difficult to look down the road at Anchorage or Kenai or Juneau or Fairbanks for that matter and draw similarities across the board. We all are following the same framework but a lot of our planning efforts are guided by our communities and what our communities want to see out of their education system,” said Fulp.
Newly hired Dr. Randy Trani will take over as Superintendent of MSBSD on Aug. 3, but Fulp is preparing district staff up until then. The extended school year began on June 29 at Tanaina Elementary and Wasilla High School with the current mitigation plan to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“This is going to take the whole community. If we want to see school in session and sports even, we all have to take this seriously so that we’re limiting the spread and don’t see an uptick in numbers,” said Fulp.
Fulp, MSBSD Public Information Officer Jillian Morrissey and other staff answered questions from families at Friday Fling in Palmer. Morrissey said that more than 50 parents stopped by to ask questions and many parents who spoke with MSBSD staff at Friday Fling came specifically to discuss the opening of schools. MSBSD staff will continue interacting with the public to disseminate information about the opening of in-person instruction at Valley schools next week.
On July 21, MSBSD staff will be at the Wasilla Middle School commons from 6 to 7 p.m. On July 23, MSBSD staff will be at both Dena’ina Elementary and Su Valley Jr./Sr. High School from 6 to 7 p.m., and on July 28, MSBSD staff will be at Houston Jr./Sr. High to answer questions from parents.
Currently, MSBSD schools will open to in-person instruction next month and families have the ability to opt-in to an at-home learning mode. Fulp also discussed the possibility of a week on, week off blended learning model if mandated by the state to limit The number of students in a room.
“The community what we’ve heard is not really interested in that model, it creates a lot of disruption. What I want to share with everyone tonight is we would only go to that model if we had a state mandate or requirement to limit the number of individuals in a room to say less than 20. So it would require the state to mandate something of the district and it would allow us to continue to provide services and some services in person,” said Fulp.
While masks are strongly encouraged among students and staff, they are not required to teach or learn in MSBSD schools this fall. Under the green model of low community transmission, students can return to school buildings for instruction with increased sanitization and social distancing measures. Fulp said that decals have been placed in classrooms to help enforce social distancing, sneeze guards have been installed on every countertop and hand sanitizer has been placed in classrooms. Each school bus will have assigned seating with families seated together. Each parent will be notified and encouraged to drive their child to school if their student’s school bus reaches 65 percent capacity.
“We’re planning around the framework and making sure that we can maintain the continuity of learning as best we can so that students are progressing through that grade level and sticking with their curriculum during that at home learning and it doesn’t create such a disruption to their progress as a student in whatever grade level they’re at,” said Fulp.
Fulp said that the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development must still review and approve MSBSD’s plan to return to schools but that Education Commissioner Michael Johnson had provided positive input after reviewing their plan.
With at-school learning, social distancing measures would be put in place in the hallways and disinfecting of surfaces will be increased. Fulp detailed the district’s plan to cohort students which is more easily done for younger children than in the secondary schools. Cohorting will allow for a more exact contact tracing process if a member of the school community does test positive for COVID-19. Fulp said that if a member of the school community (defined by DEED as the staff and students inside each building) the building may not have students for two to five days while contact tracing is done and the building is disinfected.
Blended learning would only take place in the event of another state mandate and at-home learning is available to every MSBSD student during registration which is currently open.
“We will be following those health mandates regarding extended building closures. We’re referring to them as building closures because one of the biggest things we want to communicate is we’re not shutting down school, we’re not shutting down learning. We’re making sure that every day counts for every student and whether there’s a building closure or not we will have a plan to deliver at home learning services on any day where the building is closed
Fulp also said that parents will become an integral part in the health and safety of each school community.
“We are also asking our families to self report confirmed tests or cases that come back positive because what we understand from the Department of Health and Social Services is there is a lag time between the time the physician gets the information and shares it with the state, it’s about a day and so if we get parents to self report it helps us jump on this earlier and limit the spread to others more quickly,” said Fulp. “We’re going to be asking parents not only to screen and monitor the health of their own children but to participate in letting us know if there’s a confirmed case within their household.”