Welcome to a very special Sunday edition of Friday in the Sun, our weekly column where we try to catch up and make sense of the news, rumors and gossip from the Alaska political/pandemic world.
Sorry for the longer-than-usual delay this week, the personal life has been filled with getting ready to close on a big change and it takes a while to pack up all these cables I’ve accumulated.
Hope you’ve had a nice weekend and will have a nice week.
Back to School?
This was the week where politicians across the board, remembered that, hey, we gotta figure out this whole school and coronavirus thing out pretty dang soon.
Can it be done safely? What does a safe school year look like? Are teacher’s requests for adequate personal protective equipment and smaller class sizes JUST ANOHTER ATTEMPT TO INFLATE SCHOOL BUDGETS WITHOUT IMPROVING TEST SCORES?!?
If you’re looking for an answer from a 32-year-old political blogger who’s covered perhaps three school board meetings in the entirety of his journalistic career, then you’re gonna be outta luck. But this situation, which has been so swiftly politicized by President Trump for whatever reason, is the latest example of how badly the U.S. has, in general, disastrously handled the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yes, other countries have had relative success in reopening schools for the first couple weeks (which isn’t long enough to really judge the impact given the lag in developing symptoms) but those countries also don’t have situations that are reporting new case records nearly every day (today’s the first day breaking 100, by the way).
Still, the reasons to reopen schools are far-ranging. There’s the whole economic angle of getting kids out of the home for enough hours a day for mom and dad to go back to work, which is likely compelling to a lot of parents who’ve been navigating work-from-home while also figuring out teach-from-home for the first months of the pandemic.
Perhaps more compelling is the fact that for many kids, public schools serve as a critical social safety net to ensure that they’re getting regular meals, that there’s someone checking in on them and have something to look forward to. Talk to most any teacher, and you’ll hear some pretty heartbreaking stories about kids—who were already in tough situations—who’ve fallen off the radar completely.
Talk to pediatricians about their concerns about developmental roadblocks and rising at-home abuse as the economic woes of the pandemic continues to ratchet up the stress.
Just like the latest discussion about reopening schools highlights this country’s failures in handling the COVID-19 pandemic, so too does the COVID-19 pandemic highlight the failures of this country’s rickety and underfunded social safety net program that’s seemingly been designed to leave many behind.
The reasons to be cautious about reopening schools are, well, the daily case count.
In Alaska, cases continue to spike, hitting a single-day high of 78 new resident and non-resident cases on Saturday with a majority of the cases coming from younger adults: 22 in the 20-29 age bracket, 11 in the 30-39 bracket, five in the 10-19 bracket and four under ten.
“We are moving in the wrong direction,” wrote Chief Public Health Officer Anne Zink on Twitter yesterday.
And while you might say that we’re still doing OK in the grand scheme of things, it’s also the first time that we’ve had more than 10 cases per 100,000 people and the last week alone recorded 30% of all cases we’ve seen. It’s not slowing down, and it looks like Alaska’s on track to beat the rumored internal projections of 100 cases a day by September if we don’t’ make a change.
Update: Oh, as I was writing this the Sunday numbers came out and, woof, it’s not great. 93 new resident cases reported today with another 23 non-resident cases.
We’ve also heard some rumors about somewhat-sizable outbreaks occuring on the military bases–20+ cases on Fort Wainwright–but because of the whole “It’s federal land, so we can do whatever we want” thing has barred any serious publicization of those numbers.
The reality is that we’ve collectively prioritized reopening businesses, bars and restaurants—bars and restaurants being the hotspots of the new surges—over safely reopening schools and the country’s long-term recovery. As some have pointed out, a better approach would have been to take school re-openings and work back from there.
That short-term boost we saw from reopening has also mostly gone to waste as we’ve seen in other parts of the state where reimplemented public health orders and generally wary customers have causes a new slate of lay-offs and closure. There’s are now loads of stories of people who’ve been laid off for a second time from their service industry jobs.
It’s not a v-shaped recovery, a checkmark-shaped recovery but perhaps rollercoaster coming into the station of a new normal-shaped recovery.
While Anchorage and some other cities have started mandating masks in places where social distancing isn’t feasible, the state of Alaska still has masks in the “strongly recommended” category. That has to change.
“Since there’s no statewide mandate to wear a mask, there can’t really be a statewide mandate to open schools,” teacher and former Alaska Board of Education member Rebecca Himschoot, told the House Labor and Commerce Committee during a Tuesday hearing on workplace safety. “I think it would be unjust to teachers, students and families, all educators, to say we have to be in our places of work unless we have certain precautions that are also mandated.”
Sure, the evidence is that children aren’t effected in the same way by the virus as older adults, but like so much with the pandemic, how sure are we really about that conclusion? Confident enough to send kids back and risk parents, teachers and grannies in multi-generational households getting sick?
Like the tumultuous ups-and-downs of the economy that multiply the economic pain, what happens if we rush to reopen schools without the precautions and are forced to shut them down again a few weeks or months into the school year? The long-term consequences are dire and it requires all of us to be thoughtful and considerate with moving forward.
Which is all to say, wear a GD mask and social distance.
Have a heart
The Public Policy Polling numbers aren’t great for U.S. Dan Sullivan heading into this fall’s challenge against Democrat-backed independent Al Gross, but even that wasn’t enough for the Trump-friendly Republican to be remembered in the Lincoln Project to remember his name in their made-to-go-viral-political-twitter ad, “Names.”
But, still, Dear Ol’ Ohio Dan got his time in the spotlight this week when protestors rushed his campaign kickoff in an attempt to give him a heart. Here’s the ADN’s write-up from the incident, which mercifully doesn’t gloat in campaign manager Matt Schukerow’s throwing of a woman to the floor, about the cause behind the protest:
“Attendees said it wasn’t clear what the protest was about, but after the event, Rina Kowalski of Fairbanks issued a written statement claiming responsibility. She said the intent was to present Sullivan “with a traditional gift … meant to act as medicine to heal Sullivan’s heartlessness regarding Alaska Native issues.”
It’s not like THAT in Alaska
Since the start of the latest round of anti-police brutality protests have been underway, there’s been some that have pretended like it’s not a problem in Alaska—and thus not in need of a solution. That, of course, is wholly and completely not true, but we’ve got some particular reminders of it in the last few weeks.
First up is the the Anchorage Daily News’ excellent piece on Anchorage Christian Schools hearing from students about the racism they felt at the hands of staff and students:
“Some of us have lived all over the place and the most racist environment we ever were in? It was a Christian school in Anchorage, Alaska,” said one former student. “It is just crazy.”
“My relationship with Christianity was shattered by my experience at ACS,” said another. “What I saw at ACS was that to be Christian was to hate those who were different from you.”
And this line that serves as a reminder that racism is taught:
Several of Branstetter’s former classmates have since apologized for using racist remarks and stereotypes, but he said he doesn’t hold them responsible.
“We were kids,” Branstetter said. “Our educators were setting the standards.”
If you need a few other examples, here’s an excerpt from the blog of Republican candidate for the Ketchikan House seat Leslie Becker about the virtues of resource extraction and how drilling for oil, harvesting timber and mining all other “righteous progress” will cure all that ails Alaska Natives:
One source says Becker’s not likely to win by a mile but, hey, she’ll still have a spot on the Ketchikan School Board, which just seems to produce some real winners.
And this week’s ruling form the Alaska Supreme Court is a reminder that we’re all working and living on land that has been taken from indigenous people. There’s a reason why many Alaskans will open their remarks thanking Alaska Natives and recognizing that we are on their land.
That’s not, however, the case for soon-to-be-retired Rep. Colleen Sullivan-Leonard who had this to say about changing the Wasilla High School’s mascot:
aLaSkA’S LeGaL SyStEm iS RuN By a bUnCh oF LiBeRaL ElItEs
Who’s idea at the AK Bar Association was it to have Alan Dershowitz as its keynote speaker at the Bar Convention this year?
— Bill Wielechowski (@wielechowski) July 11, 2020
Business relief ‘soon’
Eric Forrer and attorney Joe Geldhof’s gambit to force the Alaska Legislature back to the table to actually pass some vetted and legally durable fixes to the state’s small-business relief program came up short when Judge Phillip Pallenberg rejected their request for an injunction against the state’s piecemeal expansion of the program. Without an injunction, it seems likely that powers that be in the Legislature will be fine to skip the session–as well as the politically bruising rehash of the dividend a month before a bunch of really contentious Republican primaries–and leave the largely busted program as-is.
It’s honestly baffling to me that this isn’t a bigger issue than it is. The program has only given out a tiny fraction of funds to a fraction of the businesses that have applied for them, leaving potentially hundreds of millions of dollar unspent (or perhaps in-hand for a second round of dividends). The state’s advice to businesses to RETURN federal aid in order to apply–and likely wait more than a month–for the state grants is also, as one business told us, “wildly irresponsible.”
It’s almost like the governor’s attack on the institutional knowledge of government while installing a bunch of his underqualified buddies–on top of years and years of cuts–has hamstrung the state’s ability to respond in a time of crisis.
Maybe one day it’ll be a big story.
Ok. Oof, so some happy news!
Congratulations to Anchorage Daily News opinions editor Tom Hewitt for tying the knot this Saturday with the wonderful Annie Brownlee. COVID-19 canceled the big gathering for their wedding, but we were all treated to a doggie-filled livestream of the nuptials.
All the best to you two in this completely messed up time.