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Distance learning isn’t failing Anchorage high school students


Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop recently announced her intent to return all ASD students to the classroom despite rising COVID-19 numbers, stating that “the mission of our school district is to prepare our students for success,” and “(w)e are not meeting that mission.” As neighbors with daughters beginning their second quarter of online school through Service High School, we disagree with the superintendent’s broad, generalized message and her back-to-theclassroom plan for high schoolers. Our experience with high school distance learning thus far is not the colossal failure the superintendent asserts, thanks to the herculean efforts of high school teachers and staff. Rather than sending high schoolers back to class in person with COVID-19 cases rising — which we believe would be irresponsible, reckless, and unnecessary — we suggest staying the course and building on the online framework currently in place. If case numbers drop down to the low-risk “green zone” in the original Risk Level Decision Matrix presented by ASD in July (a 14-day average in Anchorage of fewer than 29 cases per day), a return to in-person school could be considered. (For reference, Oct. 29′s 14-day rolling day average was 135.) Contrary to the superintendent’s representation that online learning is failing, here is what we have observed occurring in our daughters’ online classrooms at Service High since the beginning of the school year:

• Teams of teachers worked through the summer to develop new curricula for each class to adapt to a new quarter system. Teachers not only had to figure out how to deliver material online, but also how to revamp class materials to offer the same content in half the time. Despite the obvious challenges, teachers rose to the occasion and came prepared to teach their new curricula online from day one.

• Teachers have demonstrated remarkable ingenuity and dedication to make this new system succeed.

Is the learning platform (Canvas) perfect? Far from it. But are teachers making the best of it? Absolutely.

Classroom instruction is not an easy task on Zoom, but teachers are managing well and making tremendous strides in supporting their students. They have offered office hours outside of class (including on the weekends), communications through the Canvas platform and email, and extra study sessions. They have provided supplemental materials, including additional math enrichment, to help keep students fresh during the gap between quarters. They devised a new tutoring program, taught by Service staff, offered free of charge to Service students. They have gone above and beyond in ways too numerous to mention. And they have often done these things while trying to take care of their own children. Imagine teaching Algebra II or Precalculus online while managing two active 9- and 10-year-olds.

Not something for the weak of spirit — but this sort of thing is happening every day.

• Teachers have made their expectations clear that students need to be in class with their cameras on by 8 a.m., ready to participate in their virtual classrooms. If students do not show up, they are unlikely to be successful, as it is certainly easier to avoid class with online schooling.

But the opportunities to succeed are available to teenagers willing to hold up their end of the educational bargain through personal responsibility and accountability. As working parents ourselves, we have had to depend on our daughters to get themselves up and ready for class, engage in the subject matter, and work with their teachers to resolve technological and other problems as they arise. Although there have been the inevitable glitches, our daughters are showing and learning that they are perfectly capable, far more so than their parents, of using Zoom and other online tools. They have figured out how to listen to and take notes on lectures, participate in large and small group activities, watch instructive materials outside of class, write outlines and essays, struggle through daily problem sets, take quizzes and tests and learn the material. They are becoming more independent and resourceful — a silver lining during these difficult times.

• Teachers are improving their ability to deliver quality online learning with each passing week. They are using tools and techniques we never thought possible six months ago, with many teachers reporting their intent to continue some of these practices even after students return to the classroom in person.

They are continually adapting, innovating and improving. They are figuring it out. We have every reason to believe that second quarter will be better than the first quarter, third quarter will be better than the second, and so forth.

Given the substantial progress being made with the online learning model currently in place and COVID-19 case numbers dramatically rising as we head into the winter months, the superintendent’s plan to return high schoolers to school in-person in January to “prepare our students for success” rests on faulty logic. The science is clear that the coronavirus thrives in densely populated indoor spaces with poor ventilation — the very environment found in virtually every public school in Anchorage. Bringing students and teachers back into the classroom would put them and their families at risk.

Tremendous disruption would result as schools are forced to open and shut as the virus spreads, and outbreaks occur. One need only look to the example of the Mat-Su and Kenai schools to see how that scenario is playing out. Students forced to quarantine would end up at home anyway, but without the resources and regular online schooling systems with which they have already become adept.

There is no perfect solution for how best to educate our high school kids during these dangerous and uncertain times. But there is a good one: continue the online teaching and learning that is already working reasonably well and improving every day. We should let our teachers and students build on the successes they have achieved with the online model to date without interrupting that learning process. Switching to an in-person model at this point would do a disservice to our teachers who have worked so hard to develop and deliver effective online curriculum, and to our students who have adapted to these new methods.

Sending our students back to school with COVID-19 levels greater than 29 cases (14-day rolling average) is too great a risk for our students, teachers, families, and community as a whole. The only prudent and responsible choice for our high schoolers is to stay the course with online learning.

Alison Arians and Lisa Toussaint are neighbors, working moms and daughters of public school teachers.

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