Lawsuit calls for halt to school until COVID-19 recedes | Alerts

A school worker is suing the school district and the Board of Education with hopes a judge will close schools until new daily COVID-19 case rates drop into the single digits.

Ron Arnold, 74, is representing himself. The case, filed Jan. 11, is before Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle.

The retired teacher, who now works as a behavior aide at North Pole Elementary School, is trying to hold the school district to its stated goal of prioritizing safety, he said. The Fairbanks North Star Borough Board of Education overrided the district’s operational risk matrix for COVID-19 when it voted to open schools. Elementary schools opened last week. Middle school students returned to school on Monday. High schools open next week.

“I just wanted to have a voice,” Arnold said. “They always talk about safety as the No. 1 thing for their students. They are not even honoring that.”

The school district remains in the operational high risk zone for virus transmission, according to the district website. The 14-day average number of COVID-19 cases in the Fairbanks borough per 100,000 people, 27.93, is almost three times higher than the threshold established for conducting in-person classes.

Most students have been shut out of schools since last March, and the school board’s vote came as some parents complained that remote learning wasn’t working and despite concerns of some public education workers who feel that in-person learning is not safe at this time.

“I honestly think that we are going to regret this,” Arnold said. “I hope I am wrong.”

He said he fears that opening schools will cause virus cases in the Fairbanks area to spike.

“When we get middle school and then high school students coming in, it’s going to be a lot worse,” Arnold said.

The school district case count dashboard shows 131 staff members and 66 students have tested positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of the school year in August.

Last week, two students at North Pole Elementary School reported they had tested positive for the virus, according to Yumi McCulloch, school district spokeswoman. The school is still open but 53 students are potentially impacted, according to McCulloch. Students on two North Pole elementary school bus routes were asked to stay home pending contact tracing, according to a letter from the school principal that was shared with the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

In Alaska, coronavirus case numbers and hospitalizations peaked in early December and have since been on the decline. The number of people in the hospital for COVID-19 statewide is about a third what it was during the December peak. On Monday, the Fairbanks Memorial Hospital reported they were down to two COVID-19 patients, according to spokeswoman Kelly Atlee.

New daily case counts tend to vary but the number of new cases in the Fairbanks borough has dropped down into the single digits twice during the last week or so. On Monday, there were six new virus cases reported in the Fairbanks borough for the previous 24-hour period.

Arnold said he is waiting for the school district’s response to his lawsuit. He asked for an expedited hearing or for schools to be kept close pending his case. Arnold said he paid a $250 fee to file the case.

Records provided by staff at the Rabinowitz Courthouse show that Lyle issued an order on Monday that Arnold’s request for expedited consideration is being “held in abeyance” pending proof that defendants in the case have been served.

Unions representing teachers and other school workers are in talks with the school district administration about changing contract provisions to address worker safety issues. Those talks are ongoing.

Contact staff writer Amanda Bohman at 459-7545. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMborough.