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Dogs, cocoa and story sharing: Anchorage students return to school after quake break

  • Author: Tegan Hanlon
  • Updated: February 26, 2019
  • Published December 10, 2018
Bear Valley invited dogs from National Crisis Response Canines to visit students on the first day back to school after the earthquake last month. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Latricia Lincoln remembers her teacher telling her to get down when the magnitude 7.0 earthquake jolted Anchorage’s East High School on Nov. 30.

“I was, like, kind of shaking because I didn’t really understand what was happening,” said Lincoln, 14. She ducked under a table in her language arts class.

Lincoln went back to that same classroom Monday morning. She was one of the more than 45,000 students across the Anchorage School District who returned to classes after a weeklong school closure. All but three of the district’s dozens of schools reopened Monday. The district temporarily shuttered all of its schools last week to give staff and contractors time to inspect buildings and repair damage, from sinkholes to cracks to water leaks. They also had to clean up the messes the quake left behind: scattered papers, toppled bins and piles of books thrown from shelves.

Hundreds of students return to East High School on Monday. It was their first day of school since the 7.0 earthquake rattled their classrooms on Nov. 30. (Tegan Hanlon / ADN)

Some have taken to referring to the weeklong school closure as quake break or quake-cation. Whatever you call it, having a week without classes made Lincoln feel anxious on Monday. Students don’t have as much time now to improve grades or turn in work before winter break starts on Dec. 21, she wrote Monday morning as part of a class exercise. She said she also felt a bit uneasy about the likelihood of another earthquake.

“I’m kind of nervous it’s going to happen again,” she said.

In the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District, most schools reopened last week. About a dozen schools, however, remained closed to students on Monday due to damage from the earthquake, which had an epicenter on Point MacKenzie in the borough. Many of those schools were scheduled to reopen to students on Tuesday. A few wouldn’t open until later this week, pending inspections.

In Anchorage schools Monday, several principals said that teachers and staff were focused on ensuring students felt safe and secure on their first day back.

At East High, students began their school day in their second-period class. That’s the class many were in when the earthquake struck at 8:29 a.m., two minutes before second period officially started. Teachers set aside time in the morning to talk about the quake and how students felt.

In Lincoln’s class, teacher Jordan Jensen complimented the students for quickly diving under tables when the quake hit. They recounted what happened on the morning of Nov. 30. They talked about aftershocks.

Jordan Jensen, a language arts teacher at East High School, talks to her students about the Nov. 30 earthquake on Monday. (Tegan Hanlon / ADN)

“I know we all have a story to tell,” Jensen told her class of 30.

Jensen also asked her students to write three sentences about how they were feeling Monday and what they were thinking about. They talked in small groups about what they had written.

“It’s totally OK not to be OK,” Jensen said. “It’s OK to feel unsteady. It’s OK to be a little bit concerned.”

The quake sent books and some ceiling tiles crashing to the floor at East High. It also triggered sprinklers, leading to some water damage, East High principal Sam Spinella said. A lot had been cleaned up by Monday, but two areas remained off limits: the school’s auditorium and an auxiliary gym that houses a basketball court, weight room and wrestling room.

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Anchorage Schools Superintendent Deena Bishop had said that schools would be safe on Monday, but they wouldn’t all look perfect. Some schools still had lingering damage such as broken furniture or missing ceiling tiles, she said.

At Bayshore Elementary School on Monday, students couldn’t drink the tap water. A water leak was found over the weekend, said Catherine Esary, school district spokeswoman. It was fixed by Monday, so students could flush toilets and wash their hands, she said. But they couldn’t drink the water until test results came back. In the meantime, bottled water was delivered to the school, Esary said.

Different scenes played out across Anchorage-area schools Monday.

Some students were greeted with hot chocolate. Some with welcome-back signs. Some with cookies.

About a dozen Gladys Wood Elementary School teachers greeted students at their bus stops. Many elementary students were riding the bus on Nov. 30 when the quake hit, said Gladys Wood principal Cindy Hemry.

Teachers greeted students as they arrived Monday morning at Gladys Wood Elementary School. It was their first day back in school after the 7.0 earthquake. (Photo by Kathleen Easley / Gladys Wood Elementary)

“So we thought it would be good to have some teachers spread out at various stops to talk with them and if they had any anxiety, to kind of lighten the mood a little bit,” she said.

Teachers and students rode the buses to school together.

“We’re just trying to make it easy for the kids to transition back to school," Hemry said.

Two crisis-response dogs went classroom to classroom at Bear Valley Elementary School. As a group of second-grade students petted Alix, a golden retriever, handler Melissa Kitko told them to think of any scary or sad thoughts they had when the earthquake hit.

“When you touch her, I want you to think of that thought,” she said. “And what she’s going to do is she’s going to take that yucky feeling or yucky, scary thought, and she’s going to change it into warm love.”

Callie, a Keeshond, visits students at Bear Valley Elementary School. Two dogs and handlers from the Alaska chapter of National Crisis Response Canines visited students and staff of Bear Valley Elementary School on Monday. Principal Carissa Cote said she hoped it would help students feel safe upon returning to school after the Nov. 30 earthquake. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Before classes started at East High Monday, hundreds of students passed through the cafeteria. Some talked, some hugged, some ate breakfast — just like any other day. Spinella said good morning to those who walked by.

“It’s good to see them smiling,” he said.

King Tech High School remained closed to students Monday. It will reopen Wednesday, according to the district.

The district has closed two schools in hard-hit Eagle River for the rest of the school year because of extensive earthquake damage: Eagle River Elementary School and Gruening Middle School.

Most Eagle River Elementary students and staff split between two other schools for the rest of the year: Birchwood ABC Elementary in Chugiak and Homestead Elementary in Eagle River. They started classes on Monday. The pre-kindergarten program moved to Ravenwood Elementary School in Eagle River.

Gruening students and staff are moving to Chugiak High School for the rest of the year. They’ll start classes on Tuesday.

At Chugiak, integrating an entire middle school will come with a variety of logistical challenges, said Chugiak High acting principal Allison Susel. Middle school classrooms are spread out in the school, and some spaces, such as art and music rooms, will have to be shared.

“What we’re doing is unprecedented, as far as trying to make this work midstream on a shorter timeline,” Susel said. Administrators will reevaluate how things work and make tweaks over the upcoming winter break, she said.

Susel said she thinks Chugiak and Gruening will find ways to work together. Administrators are considering starting a new mentoring program for younger students, she said. Between 75 and 100 Chugiak students will also work as “ambassadors” to help Gruening teachers and students find their way around the new school.

“I think we’re trying to find a balance of welcoming them into Chugiak as well as letting them have their own space,” she said. “It’s a pretty big change and we’re not wanting to overwhelm them.”

Matt Tunseth and Marc Lester contributed reporting.