Toting lunch boxes, riding bikes and climbing out of minivans, students made their way to schools across the Anchorage School District on Thursday for their first day of classes.
“When you start the first day, you don’t know how it’s going to go,” 13-year-old Desmond Petersen said after finishing his first day of eighth grade at Romig Middle School.
“There’s excitement because potentially good stuff could happen,” he said. “There’s also worry, because potentially bad stuff could happen.”
Thursday fell in the good-day category, he said. The teachers were nice, and there were familiar faces in many of his classes. And it was Petersen’s second year at the school, which meant it was much easier to navigate — no accidentally going to fifth period instead of fourth period like last year.
But for many, the first day back wasn’t without hiccups, as the Anchorage School District grapples with a major shortage of bus drivers. The district has only enough drivers to provide school bus service to a third of routes at a time for general education students, leaving many families without a way to get their kids to school.
Jesse Afolabi, 13, started her first day of eighth grade at Romig as well. Before walking into school, her mom, Annie Belts, hopped out of the car to snap a first-day-of-school picture of Afolabi posing by a birch tree.
Belts can’t take Afolabi to school every day, though, since she starts work early.
“I normally take the bus, and it is a little bit of a problem,” Afolabi said. “Today we got it covered because it was the first day of school, so it was different. We’re hoping to do a lot of different carpooling with my friend and hoping that the buses will come back.”
Outside West High School nearby, David Dobler — wearing a bright green safety vest and holding a stop sign — waved traffic down Hillcrest Drive on Thursday morning.
Dobler is a math teacher at West, but on Thursday he stepped in as one of the many vested crossing guards signaling parents through high school drop-off. And traffic was heavy, he said. But parents were calm and things were running smoothly just 20 minutes out from when classes began that morning.
Dobler said he didn’t know how long his crossing guard duties will last — it all depends on how many students walk and what happens with the bus route suspensions, an issue the district has characterized as temporary with more drivers in training.
Some students will have to wait weeks before they can take a bus to school. Bus service is being provided on a rotating basis to three groups, which will have three weeks of bus service followed by six weeks without it.
For now, Dobler said he’s worried about students who usually take the bus but aren’t able to now.
“I think that we’re going to have a huge transportation problem and I think we’re gonna have a huge problem with attendance,” Dobler said. “We’ll see; I hope I’m wrong.”
Picking up students also meant long lines with so many parents driving Thursday afternoon. Jessica Taylor waited more than 30 minutes when she picked up her son from Golden View Middle School. She went on Facebook, played Solitaire, considered doing crafts while waiting.
By the time she got into the middle school parking lot, things were decent. Kids saw their parents, got in their cars and were pretty much on their way. The school had sent out emails in advance about how pick-up and drop-off worked.
Taylor said she did happen to see one parent pick up their kid via four-wheeler, beating the traffic entirely.
One group of students who still have their usual bus route service includes those who travel from Girdwood to South High on the winding Seward Highway every day.
They have their normal bus driver back too, said Eli Bogdan, 16, a junior at South. Bogdan likes the driver — he’s nice and once drove the students through a near-blizzard in “white-knuckle driving,” he said.
With the 45-minute drive each way, Bogdan was ready to take a nap by Thursday afternoon. He had to leave the house around 6 a.m. to make it to South on time and was feeling really tired by the end of the first day.
At Dr. Etheldra Davis Fairview Elementary, students were cheerfully ushered across the street by preschool teacher Maryanne Andrew in the morning. She greeted each family as they walked toward school.
“You can come right across, we’ve got ya, welcome back everybody! So glad you’re here,” Andrew said to a family while they crossed the street.
Fairview did have at least some bus service Thursday, though many families still walked their kids in.
For one fifth grader at Chugiak Elementary, the first day felt different. Charlotte Hannah was new to the school, which meant she didn’t know where anything was. And a lot of students seemed like they already knew one another, since they’d been there the previous year.
But Hannah did make one friend, in a bond forged over dried seaweed that Hannah had brought to eat with lunch.
“She said, ‘I love that stuff,’ ” Hannah said. “And then I shared some with her and now we’re friends.”
The first-day energy rippled through a seventh grade social studies class taught by Mears Middle School teacher Holly Roberts. She had students guess biographic information about her as a way to get to know her. It’s a little boring to go through only policy information on the first day, she said.
Had she appeared on a cable science show? True. A television crew filmed her class doing science projects when she was in the sixth grade, she said.
Her best subject in elementary school? Math, even though she teaches social studies, she said to chorus of surprised students. She’s been to six countries and graduated from Service High. She’s also 40, which no students guessed.
Roberts has worked at Mears for 15 years, plus her internship, which she also did at Mears. On Thursday, the kids seemed really excited, which in turn makes her excited, she said.
And this year’s first day felt different from last year’s, when students were coming back from virtual learning and hadn’t had the structure of normal classes for a long time, Roberts said. Coming back to that structure last year was a bit of a shock for students.
“Last year was challenging,” she said. “Even just on the first day, there was a very different vibe last year. This year, it feels more normal.”