Steps Alaskans can take to ensure in-person classes later this year

by Senator Tom Begich

As Alaskans enjoy the later part of an unusual summer, attempting to dipnet for sockeye salmon, strategize hunting trips for caribou and moose, and simply enjoying everything our beautiful state has to offer, there is something missing as we prepare for fall. Soon, tens of thousands of young Alaskans will not be attending school in person this August, all because of COVID-19 and Alaska’s increasingly skyrocketing infection rate.

At the start of this pandemic, families struggled to make unprecedented transitions from in-person classes to distance learning. We may never know the full impact missing those last few months of classroom instruction will have on our kids. Still, the growing body of evidence is clear: Children need to be around their peers, have direct access to an in-person teacher, and, in too many cases, simply have access to consistent nutrition. So now the question thousands of Alaskans are struggling with is,

“How do we reopen schools so our children do not fall behind, or even worse, never receive the education they deserve?”

The answer clearly starts with leadership. From the President down to local leaders. First, we have to provide adequate funding so our schools can reopen safely. Congress is currently debating another relief package, part of which includes education funding. Education leaders across the country are pressing for $140 billion of nationwide assistance to achieve outcomes and increase safety precautions. If we want to reopen our schools, we need to guarantee job safety for our teachers and support staff, protection measures for our families, and ensure every child’s health is safeguarded.

But it is not just funding increased safety protocols for our schools; it is how we all live our day-to-day lives in our communities that will allow us to reopen schools.

Local communities must do more to prevent the spread of COVID-19. It’s not just establishing prudent public health mandates, but each one of us has a responsibility as well. Local communities have the ability to slow the spread of COVID-19 if simple protective measures are put in place and followed.

We’ve done this before. By canceling large gatherings of people, closing and limiting access to high-risk establishments, and following travel restrictions, we were able to slow the spread of COVID-19. Alaskans need to follow these guidelines and restrictions, including wearing a mask whenever social distancing is not possible. Until a vaccine is developed, these are the tools we have to prevent the continued uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 and to ensure we can reopen schools later this year.

The State has a role which it cannot abdicate. Governor Dunleavy must issue a statewide mask mandate and re-enact stricter social distancing mandates. Many national corporations and local businesses understand the effectiveness of masks and have issued mask mandates for patrons entering their place of business. The State should consider reverting back to some of the health mandates that were issued this spring that effectively slowed the spread of COVID-19. We saw a direct correlation of increased infection cases once the health mandates were lifted.

Threats from Washington of holding back funding if schools do not reopen in-person is unacceptable and only politicizes this pandemic. That is not the leadership we, especially our children, deserve. Because we aren’t getting it from Washington, we all have to step up and lead and do our part.

To move our economy forward, parents need to work, and kids need to go to school to learn. It takes all of us to realize the situation we are in and take necessary precautions to protect ourselves and our community. We all want to have the best for our children, but if we do not change our behavior now, they will lose opportunities. If you don’t feel the need to take measures to protect yourself, do it for the generation of Alaskans that come after you.

Senator Tom Begich (D-Anchorage) represents Airport Heights, Downtown, Fairview, Government Hill, Mountain View, Russian Jack, and South Addition in the Alaska State Senate. He serves as the Senate Minority Leader.

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