Class is back in session in Anchorage schools, with empty hallways, virtual learning and a host of challenges

A mix of excitement and uncertainty abounds as teachers and students grapple with the challenges of online-only school.

The desks in Lynda Prince’s classroom at Bartlett High School sat empty in a cluster of rows on Thursday morning. Outside the room, the locker-lined hallways echoed only silence.

It was the first day of the school year and the Anchorage School District started the quarter with all of its classes online-only. Teachers and students shared in a host of technical issues, along with uncertainty and worry of what’s to come. Some had trouble logging in to Zoom video calls and accessing the district’s online class platform, Canvas. Other students had been registered in the wrong classes. Some in the district’s new virtual home school program still hadn’t heard from a teacher.

Fewer than half the teachers taught their first day from their classrooms, Bartlett principal Sean Prince said. Everyone wishes they could be in class in person with their students, he said. Administrators in July announced that the risks associated with the coronavirus are too high to hold in-person classes and the superintendent has urged families to prepare to spend the first quarter online.

Teachers, counselors, registrars and administrators have been working all hours of the day to prepare and help students and families, he said. Still, starting the year online is an enormous task.

“It’s probably one of the biggest adaptive changes you could ever have an organization do,” he said.

“Everyone is trying to do their absolute best because we all care,” he said. “I don’t think any of us want to do school this way.”

For his wife, Lynda Prince, it was the strangest, and most nerve-wracking, first day she has experienced in her 17 years at the high school, she said. Yet she was full of excitement.

At 8 a.m., she leaned over her laptop screen and smiled as, one by one, her freshman students logged into a video Zoom session for her pre-Advanced Placement world history and geography class. She welcomed each student and coached them through a few technical aspects of Zoom.

“Nobody really wants this but we’re in it, so we’re going try to make it work,” she told the class. By 8:12 a.m., all but one of her 12 students had logged in.

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Lynda Prince’s classroom walls are lined with student artwork, student-made replicas of Native artifacts and maps denoting Indigenous territories. Cabinets are stacked with books and jumbles of supplies. She’s not yet sure how she will teach online many of her normal group activities and projects that help her students understand in new ways the Native cultures and history of Alaska.

Usually on the first day of school, Prince watches as wide-eyed, self-conscious freshmen transition into the 1,600-student high school. She normally runs the class through a few exercises to get everyone acclimated, comfortable with one another and feeling supported in the unfamiliar environment, she said.

“That’s the big challenge,” she said. “How do I build a community virtually?”

Like Lynda Prince, history teacher Tom Hood is worried about keeping his students engaged in lessons. Halfway through his second period U.S. history class, he urged his students to communicate with him if they are having any trouble — at home or in class.

A student this spring didn’t turn in any assignments, and Hood later found out it was because both parents had been laid off from work and the student was the only one in the family left with a job, he told the class.

Hood has been teaching at the high school for 21 years. But this year, “we’re all first-year teachers now. No matter how many years we’ve taught,” he said.

“There’s the anxiety, the anxiousness, the panic — this is true across the board, across all grade levels, and also within the administration as well,” he said. “There’s just so many questions that no one has an answer to.”

Hood and another teacher this summer designed the course “shells” on the district’s online platform Canvas for its U.S. history courses. But there just wasn’t enough time to develop and translate all that curriculum online, he said.

“I’ve been thinking about this for the last four or five weeks, and it was like an 80-foot wave coming,” he said.

Part of the issue is that the switch from a semester to a quarter system that requires condensing 18 weeks of material into nine weeks. No one is quite sure how it will work, he said.

Many teachers, whose first contracted day back was last Thursday, have had a week or less to prepare, he said.

“They have no idea how to do this,” he said. He said he’s spent most of the past week helping colleagues work through Canvas and trying to “talk them off the ledge.”

Still, what the district has rolled out is much better than most other schools in the country, he said. At least it has Chromebook laptops to lend students and a full, viable distance curriculum, he said.

And it’s most important for students that teachers and parents remain optimistic, patient and just work through each issue as it comes up, Hood said.

Lynda Prince said that at this point, online teaching is so new to her that she can’t anticipate exactly what the challenges will be.

“Teaching is so big,” she said. “There are so many things to take into account.”

But she will grow from the experience, she said.

“It will make me a stronger teacher,” she said. “... I’m going to tell my students that — just be patient. We’ll get through it.”

Bartlett senior Allysa Wesierski said in spring, she hoped that she and her classmates would return to classrooms in the fall, but as the pandemic worsened this summer, it became clear that wouldn’t happen, she said. The first day back went as well “as it possibly could have,” she said.

“I think most of us braced for it,” she said. “But it’s just, it’s so different now — like logging in this morning. It’s like, wow, this is what’s happening. This is what we’re going to have to deal with for at least the first quarter, first semester.”

She worries about milestone events like graduation and prom, she said.

“We all know this is potentially how it’s going to be all year,” Wesierski said.

But she is excited for her classes — most of which are Advanced Placement courses that she could eventually earn college credit for.

Wesierski was only able to connect with two of her three teachers Thursday, she said. And in one class, just four of the students, including her, logged in, she said.

Both Wesierski and senior Elizabeth Colavecchio said they are concerned with missing out on hands-on learning opportunities like science labs, or getting the support and advice they need to begin applying to colleges. It’s something which should be happening now, they said.

Colavecchio woke up early Thursday, got dressed and put on makeup. It helped the school day feel more real, she said.

It’s like there was no “concrete end” to the last year, and suddenly she is doing Zoom calls in new classes, Colavecchio said. She said she feels a little sad and disappointed and misses her community of teachers and friends. Still, she said that staying home out of school buildings is the safest thing to do.

Wesierski, too, said that the strong sense of community at Bartlett is what she misses the most.

“It‘s good to go back, talk with the teachers and like seeing their faces and they’re still treating us with excitement about the upcoming school year,” she said. “And it is reassuring to kind of see that we’re all in it together.”

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Emily Goodykoontz

Emily Goodykoontz is a reporter covering Anchorage local government and general assignments. She previously covered breaking news at The Oregonian in Portland before joining ADN in 2020. Contact her at