An Open Letter to the School Board and Chief School Administrator | Community insights

We cannot be more disappointed by the willful ignorance and callous disregard for the safety of school children, teachers and staff displayed by some members of the Fairbanks North Star Borough School Board and the Chief Administrator of the school, Karen Melin, during the current pandemic. At the last board meeting, it was clear that they had no idea what was going on in the schools they oversee. We implore them to visit and witness what is happening.

Across the borough, students are crowding into auditoriums with an adult supervisor because so many teachers are sick. The lack of masking has turned our schools into super spreaders of Covid. As of this writing, more than half of schools in the district are in modified operation because so many people are away, with 1,302 students and 210 staff reporting Covid positive since Jan. 3: www.k12northstar.org/ domain/5426. This unprecedented absentee rate is not due to “a variety of reasons”, as Melin claimed at the meeting. Everyone knows this is due to Covid. Everyone.

The board of directors and Melin must formulate a functional and transparent system. What are they doing in the face of the unprecedented absences of teachers since the reopening of schools on January 4? How should schools and parents respond to these absences?

Melin said she would support any school’s decision to enter modified operations. Yet this week parents were told by principals that there was a threshold – 15% of the school must report Covid in order to enact safety measures. There is no way to know the actual positivity rate. We lack availability of testing across the district and have no way of counting untested children with symptoms.

No one clearly understands what is happening from one day to the next. There is no coherent plan.

After last year’s struggles, in-person learning is everyone’s favorite option for students. Yet the basic security measures to ensure this have been removed, with no plan for the inevitable fallout from the creeping spread of the virus. Widespread teacher shortages cause children to suffer from declining educational attainment.

We find it highly ironic that schools practice heightened security against outside threats, while children are continually exposed to harmful conditions that are largely avoidable in school buildings. Masks, vaccinations and air filtration, proven preventative measures, are hit or miss at best.

Removing universal masking and then allowing it after 15% of a school body is infected is like sticking your finger down the drain once the clog has been removed. A recent study published in Lancet said: “Only in countries where the Omicron wave has not yet started can expanding mask use before the wave have a more substantial effect.”

The council knew this was coming and that continued masking would slow its spread and could easily have avoided the ongoing educational calamity. Yet, for reasons obvious to only four of its members, the board deliberately chose a path that resulted in the collapse of in-person learning. And so the wave crashed over us. Our students are now kept in auditoriums instead of being taught in person by teachers, in direct contradiction to the board’s stated goal of getting students back into the classroom.

Despite repeated and constant warnings from medical professionals and compelling pleas from parents, teachers and community members, the decision to remove mask wearing has caused the spread of a life-threatening disease not only among our children but throughout the community. When children bring Covid home from school, they pass it on to family members, some of whom are at risk or too young to be vaccinated. And it continues. Our hospitals are understaffed even as the number of Covid patients increases, as health workers are at home with sick children or are sick themselves. Ignorance and ill-informed decisions have led to the catastrophic state of health and utter dysfunction that currently unravels our school system, impeding the education of our children and upsetting the economic and medical well-being of our community. We can only hope that the school board and Melin feel some guilt or shame that their willful removal of security measures caused much of it. Please do better.

Signed by Elisabeth Nadin, Jen Gunderson, Tamara Kruse Roselius, Rebecca McGuire, Caroline Brown, Carrie Nash, Marita Bunch, Lael Oldmixon, Mark Oldmixon, Signe Brunner, Carl Tape, Laura Weaver, Carrie Baker, Sine Anahita, Wendy Mannan, Nancy Fresco , Aren Gunderson, Erin Parcher Wartes, Dragos Vas, Wendi Raygor, Nancy Shipka, Emily Youcha, Ashley Ritchie, Jackie Morton, Marla Statscewich, Georganne Hurt-Brainard, David A. James, Jane Wolken, Gabriel Wolken, Tori Tragis and Diane O ‘Brian.

Martha K. Merrill