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On Monday, Alaska begins an unprecedented two-week statewide school closure that will keep 137,000 schoolchildren home in service of slowing the spread of the coronavirus.
Administrators, officials and teachers agree the goal is to keep students learning while they’re physically out of the classroom. But nobody seems to know quite how that will work, in practice.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy ordered the closure Friday night. Alaska joins 22 other states, plus some large cities such as New York and Los Angeles, in shuttering schools for weeks or in some cases more than a month to blunt the impact of the virus.
In Alaska’s 507 schools, all scheduled school days starting Monday through Friday, March 27 will be teacher “non-contact days” which means teachers will at least initially be expected to report for work but students won’t be allowed into schools, ranging from remote village schools with a dozen students to large high schools with thousands of students, according to the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.
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All school districts have been instructed to use the time to figure out how to school students remotely, using technology. They’ve also been told to deep clean buildings.
The specifics of how the “distance delivery” will work are unclear, said Tim Parker, the president NEA-Alaska, the union that represents approximately 8,000 public school teachers and roughly as many classified support staff statewide.
“This is uncharted territory,” said Parker, who most recently worked as a high school history teacher in Fairbanks.
Some of the biggest questions involve how to reach the youngest elementary students, special education students who rely on schools for education as well as therapy and medical support and very small or remote areas where internet learning just isn’t much of an option.
While children are at home for the next two weeks “we’re going to try and fill some of their needs,” Parker said. “I don’t know how many we can.”
Every school district will handle the mandate to close differently, said Shawn Arnold, superintendent of Valdez City School District and the president of the Alaska Superintendents Association.
Almost all will be using the next few days to clean schools and make a plan for a potential longer closure.
At the Anchorage School District, teachers will make “supplemental learning materials available” to their students during the two-week closure, varying from teacher to teacher and school to school, according to the district.
“They are intended to keep students engaged during the closure,” ASD spokesman Alan Brown said. “They will not be graded and will be entirely voluntary.”
If the closure extends beyond March 27, the district “will pursue more structured distance learning options.”
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There are few answers about what a long-distance classroom might look like in the longer-run.
In Arnold’s Valdez district, teachers will survey families to find out who has capacity for internet, or who might benefit from a loaner laptop or iPad. There are limits to what can be done online, especially for younger students.
“That’s one of the biggest challenges,” Arnold said.
Another challenge: Online learning in places where getting online isn’t easy.
In a community like Eagle, on the Yukon River near the Canada border, there’s some internet availability but it sure isn’t fast, said Gateway School District superintendent Scott McManus.
“Email back and forth with teacher and student? Maybe. Videoconferencing? That’s not doable,” he said. “There just isn’t the bandwidth."
Beyond connectivity issues, village schools function as so much more than classrooms.
“Schools are often the heart of small communities,” Arnold said. “If the school is closed, there often won’t be much more going on.”
Arnold is also thinking about the PEAKS assessment, a major standardized test that was supposed to be given near the end of March all over the state. He’s wondering if there will be a waiver, or if the test will be made up at another time.
There’s also a long list of other questions for superintendents like Dr. Bridget Weiss of the Juneau School District. What about graduating seniors? And medically complex students who spend part of their day getting physical therapy in one of the now-closed city pools?
She’s heartened that most school districts have quickly thrown together plans to deliver meals to needy students, often using their school bus systems for distribution.
“I feel confident that districts are sorting through imminent needs, and finding a way to step in,” she said.
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