West Anchorage High School principal Sven Gustafson conducts a Zoom call for students, welcoming them back to in-person learning and introducing members of the staff, from a laptop in the school lobby on Tuesday. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

As West High students shuffled in the doors Tuesday morning, principal Sven Gustafson and his staff were in the foyer, directing students to classrooms and handing out breakfast.

“Good morning, guys. Know where you’re heading?” Gustafson said.

More than 12,500 middle and high school students in the Anchorage School District headed back to classrooms for in-person learning this week after a year at home. A lot has changed, Gustafson said. Out of West’s 1,800 students, around 1,400 are returning to school, and about 400 will finish the school year virtually.

A student walks into West Anchorage High School for their first day of in-person learning on Tuesday. The students have spent a full calendar year doing virtual learning due to the pandemic. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

Pre-pandemic, the average class size at West was around 32. Now, it’s 20. Physical education classes will take place outside, weather permitting. The choir is now singing in the auditorium, a bigger space where they can practice a mandatory 8 feet apart. Band is taking place in the cafeteria for the same reason, and orchestra practice is happening in the band room.

“As much as we could possibly think of to be ready for today, we’ve done,” Gustafson said.

Security guard Antonio Wyche gives a student directions to find her classroom before school starts at West Anchorage High School on Tuesday. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

The changes don’t stop there. School nurses have prepared isolation areas for students who display COVID-19 symptoms. Each elementary and secondary school in the district has its own pool of substitute teachers who are in the building during school hours and ready to assist at any time, ensuring there is no mixing among schools.

A teacher at West even created a system to track which bathrooms students are using, in case there is an outbreak in the school, Gustafson said.

“When kids need to use the bathroom, they just take their phones, use the QR code,” Gustafson said. “That QR code is specific to a specific bathroom, so we know who is in that bathroom at any given time.”

A student walks toward her classroom at Begich Middle School on Tuesday. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

Across town at Begich Middle School, nervous chatter and squeaky, snowy shoes filled the halls. Principal Brendan Wilson said school staff would normally expect more than 900 sixth, seventh and eighth graders roaming the halls. This week, there are over 600 students returning and about 300 students choosing to complete their classes at home all or part of the week.

Dayna Spaulding gives instructions to Maiyer Moua during band class at Begich Middle School on Tuesday. ’I've missed y'all, ’ she said after doing a few warm-up exercises with her seventh grade class. The students and staff returned to in-person classes Tuesday after a year of learning online due to the pandemic. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

Even with a mask on, Wilson said it’s easier to know what is going on with a student emotionally in person than through a computer screen.

“I’ve been using the phrase ‘August frame of mind’ a lot. So it’s not as loud and energetic as you’d expect in March, usually,” Wilson said. “Kids typically (that) come back in August, especially our new-to-school kids, very quiet, shy and a little bit afraid. The energy is a little bit tempered, but there’s a natural buzz for having more kids around.”

‘One of the best days I have ever had’

Science and chemistry teacher Katrina Quinn has been at West High for the last five years, but had never seen her freshman students this year outside of a Zoom square. After teaching online for over a year, she said she’s learned a lot of new skills. But she’s glad to be back.

Freshman science and chemistry teacher Katrina Quinn talks with her students after an ice breaker activity at West Anchorage High School on Tuesday. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

“This is awesome. It gives you a little sense of normalcy, seeing the kids,” Quinn said. “Yesterday was one of the best days I have ever had — I was on fire. Seeing them and laughing with them and being in their presence gave me so much hope and honestly, they are so happy to be here and it’s contagious.”

Like other teachers in the district, Quinn continues to teach students online some of the time. The district has four options for students to complete fourth quarter: in-person, hybrid, ASD Virtual and ASD Homeschool. Each school’s mitigation plan can be found on the district website.

“I think the biggest thing we learned is how much we appreciate (in-person) school,” Quinn said. “Every kid is excited to be here today.”

Quinn isn’t the only teacher feeling that energy. Madison Rosser, a language arts teacher at Begich Middle School, said it’s important for students to interact and support each other.

“But more than that, they just need community — and we get to do that together,” Rosser said.

Tenth grade students at West Anchorage High School look for their names to find their first classroom as they return to in-person learning on Tuesday. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

The last year has been challenging, but Rosser said she is a better teacher now than a year ago.

“We’re doing school, we’re doing it safely, and we’re making the adjustments we need to make,” Rosser said. “I told our kids, ‘This might feel different and weird, but we waited through a lot of weirdness this year. What’s another adjustment?’ ”