Wasilla elementary school canceled Friday due to staffing shortages

WASILLA, Alaska (KTUU) – The closure of Iditarod Elementary School in Wasilla was announced around 10 p.m. Thursday night, after a number of leadership, support, and instructional staff had to call out due to illness.

In his 33 years in education, Matanuska-Susitna Borough’s School District Superintendent Dr. Randy Trani said Friday that he’s never seen anything like it.

“We did have a few staff test positive for COVID, but the others are just illness of various types,” Trani said. “We’re used to, you know, filling them with substitutes, but the particular combination of people that happened to have all got sick really was a challenge.”

The decision was ultimately made for student safety. The district is primed to fill various positions with substitute teachers, but Trani said this particular combination of staff — many of whom are front office workers — was too vast to fill with subs.

Normally the district would transition to remote learning, but because it’s only the fourth day of school, students have yet to be fully equipped with the materials they need to pivot to at-home schooling.

“We’re just starting our one-to-one initiative, where we’re issuing computers to all of our students in third, fourth, and fifth grade on up,” Trani stated.

It’s still unclear whether the elementary school will reopen on Monday following Friday’s cancellation, but Trani said that the district expects to make that decision by Sunday.

The Iditarod Elementary closure comes on the heels of rolling bus cancellations due to driver shortages, affecting daily routes and leading to bus cancellations to and from school-sponsored sporting events. The shortage comes amidst Durham School Services taking over the transportation contract with the district on Tuesday, leaving it up to parents to come up with alternatives for getting their kids to school once a week.

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At Wednesday’s regular school board meeting, board members like Ole Larson, who represents District 3, voiced their frustration over the situation — calling for the district to hold the school service company accountable and levy fines for not meeting the terms of their contract.

“I’ve been on this board a long time and I have never seen this bad of a situation,” Larson said at the Aug. 17 meeting.

Trani agrees that the bus issue is unacceptable, but that he has already seen some improvement this week, citing that 90% of all runs were on time Friday, which is up 10% from two days earlier. Trani also had elementary school principals call on staff volunteers to ride the bus routes with the students Thursday and Friday.

“As disruptive as the start has been we just felt it was really necessary to show parents that, you know, the district is taking this very seriously, and we’re doing all we can to help support Durham so they can get up and running the way that both parents and the school district expect them to operate,” Trani said.

At Wednesday’s regular school board meeting, one parent testified that her special needs fifth grader was “lost” for two hours on a general education bus after school. According to the parent, she was unable to figure out which bus he was on nor was she able to get ahold of anyone at transportation dispatch.

“6:05 p.m. my child was dropped off,” the mother said. “I had no idea where my autistic child was for over two hours.”

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A total of seven parents spoke to the board during public comment to voice their frustration with the extremely late buses and lack of tracking ability to know where their child was.

As for now, the rolling closures will continue until there is no longer a shortage of drivers. Trani anticipates some minor changes in scheduled routes as the school year progresses, as the district aims to smooth out the number of routes canceled on any given day. Trani expects Durham School Services to uphold their contract.

“I think that we have the attention of Durham, they’ve sent top leadership up from the West coast,” Trani said. “Durham is, you know, a very huge company with more than 14,000 buses. They have the resources, they just need to redirect them here.”

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