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Education

After 10 months of online learning, many Anchorage elementary students are finally returning to classrooms

Rhiana Gay stands in her kindergarten classroom at Creekside Park Elementary on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. Ms. Gay's students will return to in-person learning on Tuesday, Jan. 19. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

At Anchorage’s Creekside Park Elementary School on Friday, kindergarten teacher Rhiana Gay put the finishing touches on her classroom’s setup, placing clips holding face masks on the edges of the desks in preparation for the first day of in-person classes this school year.

Most elementary students in pre-kindergarten through the second grade, and special education students in self-contained classrooms through the sixth grade, are set to start school in-person at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday.

Anchorage classrooms have been closed since March to in-person learning, and as they prepare to finally begin reopening, they are contending with a serious health risk and implementing scores of precautionary measures.

For months, schools have been planning.

Creekside Park is one of dozens of elementary schools in the Anchorage School District where teachers and administrators have been finalizing preparations and fine-tuning COVID-19 mitigation strategies in order to reopen classrooms this week.

Down the hall from Gay, second-grade teacher Kristin Soult on Friday moved desks around what is usually the school’s art room, measuring at least a 3-foot distance or more between each spot.

Soult needs the bigger room for social distancing, since she expects about 20 students to return, she said.

A poster with paper cutouts of face masks adorns a hallway at Creekside Park Elementary on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. The school is preparing for the return of in-person learning on Tuesday, Jan. 19. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Three times so far this school year, district Superintendent Deena Bishop has announced plans to phase students back in to classrooms and then postponed those plans due to the increasing spread of the coronavirus in Anchorage.

Parents, teachers, administrators and school board members for months have debated the merits and weighed the risks of opening schools while COVID-19 is spreading in the community. Some worry most that keeping schools closed harms the learning and safety of the most vulnerable students, while others worry that opening schools could cause the virus to ripple further through the community.

Preparing to hold in-person school during a global pandemic has many teachers stressed, and their union is taking steps like notifying the school district of unsafe working conditions.

Some families are choosing not send students back due to the risks and are instead signing up for the district’s virtual option.

Faced with finally returning to the classroom, Gay said she is simultaneously feeling “scared, happy, nervous and prepared.”

First-grade teacher Savannah Nordby conducts a lesson over Zoom from her classroom at Creekside Park Elementary on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. K-2 students will return to the school for in-person learning on Tuesday, Jan. 19. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Keeping the kids safe

Principals and teachers have worked to create personalized COVID-19 mitigation plans for each school. They’ve done things like planned socially distanced, one-way routes for kids to walk in hallways and created individualized totes of classroom materials for each student, so they won’t have to share frequently touched objects like markers and crayons.

“We’re ready,” said Creekside Park’s principal, David Christal.

In the mornings before school, Christal said he will paint a few hundred dots, each six feet apart, on the snowy ground outside of the school, marking the spots where kids can line up to enter the building.

Classroom preparation has been a little tricky because teachers aren’t always sure how many students will be returning, because some families are choosing to use the district’s virtual program instead, and are making last-minute decisions, he said.

Some families risk losing a day-care provider if their child goes to school due to the COVID-19 risks, he said. Creekside Park is a Title I school, meaning many families have low socioeconomic means.

“A lot of our parents are working sometimes two jobs,” he said. “Losing a daycare provider would be a very big substantial hit for him, so that that’s made that a difficult decision for many of our families.”

Christal’s school has already seen many students in-person over the last few months because it piloted a small tutoring program in October for some students, with about 20 students and four teachers, he said.

Tutoring was expanded after students didn’t return to in-person classes as expected in November and the school had about nine teachers volunteer to tutor 80 kids, he said. It acted almost as a trial-run for in-person school, he said.

“How are kids going to walk in the hallway? Well, we’ve seen them walk in the hallway,” Christal said. “... Are we worried about masks? No, because we’ve already done tutoring programs and seen the kids be fine with the masks.”

The success of that program eliminated a lot of his worries and eased his teachers’ minds about mitigation processes and COVID-19 spread, he said.

“We were able to keep COVID out of our school,” said first-grade teacher Crystal Whitney, who volunteered as a tutor. “...So that shows me that as long as you’re safe and the kids are following the expectations and the teachers are following the mitigation processes, that you can keep it out and kids can learn.”

Everything Whitney has done to prepare centers on one question: “How do I keep my kids safe while still being able to educate them?” she said.

She has planned ways for kids to have movement throughout the school day, because they will not be able to get up and leave the classroom or move around the school as usual. She’s also had to think about how to help them get the physical and social connection they crave, while also teaching them to stay socially distant.

So she will encourage kids to give themselves “bear hug” and squeeze their own arms to imitate the touch of a friend. They’ll take jumping-jack breaks and do little dances to videos when the kids need to move, she said.

“So much of your teaching is built based on those relationships that you have and the fun, silly things that happen in a classroom,” Whitney said.

Those spontaneous moments of learning are more difficult to create during online lessons, where kids are often muted and must take turns speaking, she said.

“I think when we get back in and the kids are here it will look and feel different, while at the same time also still feeling like what school is supposed to be -- that community, a positive place to learn and grow,” Whitney said. “That’s what they need right now. They need that connection they need to be able to see see their peers and see other people.”

Still, many teachers are apprehensive about the health risks of in-person school while -- and also how different school will be while operating under such strict health precautions.

Creekside Park Elementary principal David Christal stands next to a COVID-19 poster on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021 at the school. The school is preparing for the return of in-person learning on Tuesday, Jan. 19. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Virus fear persists

In Gay’s kindergarten class, she will focus on the social and emotional well-being of her students during their first week back in class. They’ll practice the new routine and get into a groove of mask-wearing and hand-washing, she hopes.

“Kids shine when there is routine,” she said.

Still, things will be very different.

“I really had to change the layout of my classroom,” she said.

The cozy tent that usually acts as a safe, calming space where kids can relax and have alone time is gone. The communal writing station is gone. The care bear that kids can hug when they are upset is gone, too.

“Now it’s all just hard plastic items that can be cleaned,” Gay said.

In kindergarten, students learn through play, Gay said. But toy time will look different. Kids will choose one bucket of Legos or toys to play with individually for the whole week.

Gay said she has deeply missed interacting with her students in person throughout the school year.

Still, the risk of COVID-19 finding its way into her classroom hits Gay at home -- her father is immunocompromised and has a serious condition, and she lives with him. She is afraid she could give him the coronavirus. She’s also afraid for her students and their families, she said.

Whitney worries, too. She doesn’t know what she would say to the families if students contracted COVID-19 in her classroom

“I think that is my biggest fear -- if kids do get sick in my class, kind of feeling responsible for that,” Whitney said.

Gay is concerned because the district’s plan calls for a minimum three-foot distance to be kept between people in classrooms, and not the six-foot distance recommended by the Centers for Disease Control.

Students will be eating in classroom with masks off for extended periods of time. Health experts have warned that eating and drinking indoors around others is a high-risk activity.

Gay has tried to space students as far apart as possible, and they will have plastic dividers up during meal times, she said. But there are two students to a table in the room.

The reality of getting her 18 students to wash their hands six or more times per day is also daunting, she said.

Still, “we’re going to have to get through it,” Gay said. “ So what can I do to get through it?”

So, she will teach in person, she said. Still, her fears are echoed among many teachers.

The Anchorage Education Association, the teacher’s union, has filed a preliminary grievance with the school district, notifying the district that some members may refuse to carry out work assignments due to unsafe working conditions. It has also outlined the steps its members can take if they feel they are being forced into an unsafe situation by their school administrator.

Corey Aist, the association’s president, said the goal is to be solution-oriented for the safety of everyone, and not an obstacle to in-person learning. The safety concerns range from classrooms without 6-feet of distance between students, to lunchtime in close quarters without masks, to concerns about air circulation and filtration.

“Teachers want to do a good job. They want their students to achieve. They want their students to progress. They want to do it in a safe environment, and they are concerned that we are not in a safe environment,” Aist said. “They are concerned that they’re going to contract COVID-19. They’re afraid their students are going to contract it.”

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