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Anchorage schools reunite students with pencil boxes, light-up sneakers and other left-behind possessions

Sand Lake Elementary teachers Kirstin Barboza and Kristen Kangas helped gather student belogings on Tuesday, May 5, 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Bill Roth / ADN)

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Three schoolteachers — Hali Tuomi, Kirstin Barboza and Kristen Kangas — all wearing colorful cloth face masks, gloves and sunglasses, stood in front of Sand Lake Elementary School on Tuesday, waving hello to families of students driving up.

A black vehicle rolled into the lot and the passenger, Rina Cruz, held up to the window a piece of white paper scrawled with the names of her son and her son’s teacher.

That set off a chain reaction: After squinting to read the name, the teachers radioed in the order.

Then, a group of Sand Lake employees inside the school relayed the child’s belongings from where they sat among hundreds of other bags cluttering the gymnasium floor in organized piles and rows.

A moment later, another school employee emerged from the school, carrying a plastic bag brimming with Cruz’s son’s belongings.

After closing unexpectedly in March, Anchorage schools this week began returning students’ possessions — things like books, pencil boxes, shoes and winter clothing.

“It’s a massive undertaking," said Sand Lake Elementary principal Linson Thompson.

Sand Lake Elementary principal Linson Thompson inside the school as students picked up their personal belongings in the parking lot on Tuesday, May 5, 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Schools across the have state shut their doors as part of the state’s effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. The Anchorage School District first announced an extended closure during spring break and moved its classes online. Schools later closed statewide for the rest of the year. But the district’s nearly 50,000 students left behind belongings in lockers and classrooms, expecting to return to school after spring break.

In order to return possessions, Sand Lake’s staff had to empty out each locker and classroom while adhering to social distancing protocols to keep students and teachers safe and far apart, said Ginger Howard-Powelson, an administrative assistant at the elementary.

“Our primary goal is no contact,” Howard-Powelson said.

Traci Thompson, left, picked up belongings for her daughter and two other students from teacher Kirstin Barboza at Sand Lake Elementary on Tuesday, May 5, 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Fifth and sixth grade teacher Tuomi said that first, a crew from the district removed things from teachers’ desks. Then, “we came in and labeled everything and went through all the lockers,” Tuomi said.

Teachers had just six-and-a-half hours to sort through, identify and organize all the stuff, Howard-Powelson said.

“We have 600-plus students here, so this is not an easy task,” she said.

It’s been over a month since the abrupt school closures, and Sand Lake’s teachers found many nasty surprises inside its lockers — like soured milk cartons and stinky food.

“I pulled so much food out of lockers — it was so gross,” Barboza, a long-term substitute teacher, said.

Special education teacher assistant Anita Thiele organizes student personal belongings in Sand Lake Elementary on Tuesday, May 5, 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Bill Roth / ADN)
Second grade student Sienna Benedict, 7, holds up a sign that teachers used to retrieve her personal belongings at Sand Lake Elementary on Tuesday, May 5, 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Many teachers had to resort to Zoom video calls with their students to figure out what belonged to who, said Kangas. One student was especially delighted to be reunited with his light-up sneakers, she said.

By Monday, the sorted belongings covered “every square inch of the floor” in the gymnasium, Thompson said.

The school will hold on to important things that aren’t picked up, like snow gear, and hopes to return them in the fall, Thompson said. Other unclaimed leftover items will be donated or thrown away.

“It’s been a tremendous effort of the entire staff,” Thompson said. “We’re all just trying to get through this together."

Teachers Kirstin Barboza, left, and Hali Tuomi carry bags with personal belongings to students waiting in vehicles at Sand Lake Elementary on Tuesday, May 5, 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Bill Roth / ADN)

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