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With school closures extended, Anchorage students and teachers wonder what’s next

School busses are parked at the Anchorage School District transportation center on Friday, March 27, 2020. Schools have been ordered temporarily closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

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Alaska’s roughly 132,000 students and 8,000 teachers won’t meet in classrooms until at least the beginning of the next academic year.

Alaska has joined 17 other states nationwide that have ordered schools to remain closed through the rest of the academic year. Gov. Mike Dunleavy made the announcement Thursday evening.

For the Anchorage School District, the closure extension means that the distance learning program it rolled out last week will continue through the rest of the year, spokesman Alan Brown said in an emailed statement.

“The school closure extension adds a degree of predictability and consistency to the rest of the school year, in that teachers and students will not have to transition back to the classroom after being away for nearly two months,” Brown said.

But the governor’s announcement has left students, teachers and parents with plenty of questions and uncertainty.

“The natural question then is, ‘OK, what about next year?’ And it’s this giant wait-and-see,” said Tom Klaameyer, Anchorage Education Association president. “Once we go back, will we then have to close again next year? It’s unsettling.”

School buildings had previously been closed through May 1 under a statewide mandate made in March. The Anchorage School District had anticipated the extended closure, Brown said, and Superintendent Deena Bishop had urged families to prepare for the closure extension during a press conference last week.

The new mandate leaves open-ended whether students will be able to meet with teachers in small groups at the end of the school year and states that the option will be evaluated later this month.

While the mandate does solidify the near future for Anchorage schools, it also causes an extensive fallout for students, their families and their teachers.

High school seniors are wondering how they will celebrate graduation or if they will miss out on saying goodbye to some of their friends. Teachers are struggling to connect with students they haven’t yet been able to reach. Parents are trying to find a new balance as their lives at home have been upended.

Catherine Allison, a math teacher at West High School, knew the announcement would probably come soon — but the news was still a blow on Thursday night.

“All of it became very real all at once,” Allison said. “If I’m being honest, I was upset. I miss my students. I can only truly guess how they are doing without seeing them in person. There are some I still haven’t been able to reach.”

In just two weeks, the district moved to online learning over an extended spring break and teachers have redesigned the way they are connecting with students, using phone calls, emails and video conferencing software.

“Not hearing from some of our students and worrying about the stress that they’re experiencing in their families — those sorts of things weigh heavily on teachers,” Klaameyer said.

Students are missing out on milestones and rites of passage, from annual end-of-year elementary field days to high school graduations, Klaameyer said.

Katrina Quinn teaches conceptual chemistry, Earth science and essentials of athletic injury at West High School. “Just because it’s the right decision doesn’t mean it’s easy to swallow, ’ Quinn said of the school closure. Photographed near her Anchorage home on April 6, 2020. (Marc Lester / ADN)

“ASD leadership is actively exploring a range of options to honor our graduating seniors and to provide them the celebration they deserve,” Bishop said in a district-wide email sent late Friday afternoon.

Bishop did not include in the email what those options might be, but said they would be shared once “we have a more complete picture.”

Sue Anderson, a mom of three children who attend Winterberry Charter School, said that her eighth-grade daughter is “in mourning,” crushed that she can’t celebrate her upcoming 14th birthday with her peers. She’s had the same teacher and classmates since kindergarten and won’t get to celebrate graduation with them, Anderson said.

“It’s missing out — mourning the things we’re supposed to be experiencing that we’re not getting to experience right now and waiting for the unknown,” Anderson said.

Anderson is now working from home while at the same time helping her kids with schoolwork.

“I’m trying to balance my need to take care of my family, take care of myself and not letting it all drown me,” she said.

Kimberly Allison, a senior at Eagle River High School, is coping with the fact that she won’t get to don her cap and gown with her classmates at the end of the year. There are students who have been in her classes for years that she may never see again or have a chance to say goodbye, she said.

Even though she tries to keep up with her friends through video calls, there is a distance that is growing. They don’t talk as often anymore. But she knows the physical distancing is necessary, she said.

“I think we all get that there is something going on that’s a lot bigger right now and there are people who are losing a lot more than we are,” Allison said.

West High School teacher Katrina Quinn said the governor’s announcement was another hard hit for students — especially seniors — who’ve had a tumultuous few months.

“We all knew this was coming and our state has made the right call to ensure everyone’s safety and well being,” Quinn said. “Just because it’s the right decision doesn’t mean it’s easy to swallow."

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