State officials shuttered school buildings across Alaska in March in an effort to curb the spread of the new coronavirus, a decision affecting Alaska’s 137,000 students and thousands of teachers.
While buildings remained closed last week, Anchorage schools were back in session as classes moved online.
On Tuesday, the Anchorage School District rolled out a districtwide distance learning plan. It includes supplementary online classes to keep elementary and middle school students engaged at home and for-credit high school classes to ensure that students stay on track for graduation.
Doug Gray, principal at Paideia Cooperative High School, an Anchorage distance learning school, described the sudden move to online learning districtwide as a feat that “turned an aircraft carrier on a dime 180 degrees in a totally different direction.”
Still, many of the milestones that Anchorage students have worked toward are no longer possible. Athletes can’t compete in spring sports. Proms are canceled. And how graduation ceremonies will be held remains uncertain.
“It’s been heartbreaking. It’s been devastating,” said West High School chemistry teacher and cheerleading coach Katrina Quinn. “I feel bad for everybody, but you know, I’m really feeling bad for those kids that worked so hard over the last 12 years of their schooling.”
Teachers and students are adjusting to new modes of connection, using email, phone calls and Zoom, a video conferencing software, to stay in touch. Some families are struggling to keep up with the sudden demands. And not every family has technology like computers or high-speed Wi-Fi necessary for online learning.
‘Still trying to reach every kid’
Quinn said the news of the school closure hit her with a “panic of uncertainty.”
"It’s just been so many emotions — really, truly just difficult not being able to see my students every single day,” Quinn said. “The most unsettling part is there’s students that I still haven’t gotten a hold of. I still don’t know if they’re OK or if they have access.”
Teachers across the district made a coordinated effort during the extended spring break to contact every student, but they haven’t reached them all yet.
“We are still trying to reach every kid," said Catherine Allison, another West High School teacher.
Allison wonders about the kids she hasn’t heard from — if their families are OK, if their parents have lost jobs, if they have enough food to eat.
“My favorite thing about teaching is the connections that I get to make," Allison said. “Those connections to me are priceless. And so not having them in front of me, not getting to check in on them — that’s been really difficult.”
Most students returned to classes Tuesday, logging in to Zoom calls with teachers and accessing school courses on the online platform Canvas.
For Allison, seeing many of her students’ faces — even as grainy pictures on a computer screen — was a relief.
“It sounds cheesy, but it just kind of fills you up,” she said.
English is a second language for many students. Reaching those families has been challenging, Allison said. One of her pupils is still learning English and has no email address or cellphone. Allison spent a half hour on the phone with her, helping her log in to her new online classes.
Some students don’t have good Wi-Fi at home or have to share computer time with parents working from home and siblings who also have online classes, Quinn said.
The district is passing out Chromebook laptops to students who need them the most. It is prioritizing high school seniors and working down through the grades.
According to spokeswoman Lisa Miller, so far, the district has lent out 1,611 Chromebooks and 750 MyFi hotspots to give students wireless access. Children in middle schools will begin receiving laptops soon, according to Superintendent Deena Bishop.
Distance learning looks different for different grade levels
Usually about 1,500 students in the district take classes through the iSchool, a supplemental online learning program that has been used by the district in some form for about 10 years, coordinator Amy Larsen said.
The iSchool acted as a foundation for the district’s shift. Larsen’s team oversaw the change.
“We had already spent 10 years refining it. It was absolutely so streamlined that it made it so easy for a very small group of people to push it out — literally from our couches,” Larsen said.
The entire operation — curriculum finalized, courses uploaded and teachers trained — took less than two weeks.
“We went from very small streamlined to very big," Larsen said. “We called on the resources of every single teacher we knew that had training in online teaching.”
As of Tuesday, more than 46,000 children in the district were offered some form of online learning, Bishop said during a school board meeting last week.
Much of the curriculum comes from courses the district purchased from Florida Virtual Schools 10 years ago, Larsen said. The district has supplemented those with other courses from eDynamic, a supplier of career and technical education courses. Curriculum that used to vary between teachers is now the same for each class across the district, but the classes are still overseen by Anchorage teachers.
Only high school courses are graded and for credit — everything else the district is providing is supplemental. While teachers will still provide feedback and support, middle schoolers can expect their third-quarter grades to be the final grade they receive at the end of the year.
Elementary school offerings are supplemental and meant to be flexible for families, said Daniel Barker, senior director of elementary education for the district. Parents can choose what activities and assignments will work best for their children.
“Its focus is very explicitly to maintain skills and support kids with engagement in academic thinking at work," Barker said. "It is not in any way intended or believed to be able to replace a daily interaction with a highly-qualified, highly-trained and super-experienced and talented teacher.”
But not every family with an elementary-aged student has online access, he said, and the district is still working out exactly how to support them. Those families should receive mailed paper packets of learning material in the coming days, he said.
As of now, only core subjects like English language arts, math, science and social studies are being offered online, but high school students should have access to elective courses beginning April 13.
“It was in record time that I feel like they were able to provide a platform for the kids to continue learning and for the teachers to keep teaching,” Allison said.
“This is going to change everybody’s life and it already has, but I don’t want it to change our young people’s lives in the long trajectory of what they’re going to do," Barker said.
How long will schools be closed? What about graduation?
In March, state officials extended statewide school closures until May 1, but it’s unclear just how long the building closures will last.
Bishop said Friday that the district is preparing to remain online-only through the end of the school year.
“While we haven’t had any indication from the state, I want us all to be ready,” Bishop said. “With the evidence that’s been presented for me, I would have to share that I don’t believe we will have a school (this year) as we have known as a traditional school."
Bishop said that if school buildings remain closed, the district would continue to hold online classes through the rest of the school year.
The district isn’t sure how it will approach graduation, but it’s something that is on everybody’s mind, Bishop said. It is establishing an “ad hoc focus group” of principals, teachers and students to come up with different ways to move forward with graduation.
“I just keep reassuring my students — try your best, do all the work you can do and take care of yourself, take care of your family,” Quinn said. “Get outside, go do something for yourself. Chemistry will be there tomorrow. You need to do whatever you can do to stay positive.”
On Tuesday morning, Quinn opened her front door and found that someone had left a brown paper package, hand-painted in blue flowers, on her doorstep. Inside were colorful notes of gratitude from her senior cheerleaders and a tumbler personalized with the words “Coach Katrina.”
“It was just like, ‘wow, they’re in their darkest moment right now and they’re thinking of me.’ They’re still resilient, these kids.”