Unalaska schools reopened today under the Unalaska City School District's Smart Start 2020 plan. The district is holding a "soft opening" with a limited number of students attending classes for the first three days.
Next week, the schools will transition into a modified structure that involves mask-wearing, social distancing, and staggered schedules. Administrators say as part of their smart start plan, schools will transition back to home-based learning if and when Unalaska moves to the "high risk" threshold due to community spread of COVID-19.
District officials have been developing and revising their reopening plan over the past several months. And teachers have similarly been contending with changes in their curricula, teaching strategies, and simply whether or not they will be able to see their students.
Last week, after the district's Smart Start 2020 plan was approved by the state, teachers were able to return to their classrooms and begin making concrete plans for in-person but socially distanced classes.
Darlene Jeppesen is a second grade teacher at Eagle's View Elementary Achigaalux. She has been teaching in Unalaska for about 30 years, and the impressive accumulation of books, posters, and craft supplies show it. Jeppesen's classroom is filled with brightly colored and eye-catching artwork, blocks, posters, and mobiles. And in the corner of her room there's a giant purple amethyst that she said used to display a large sign that read "Please touch."
Because she is trying to limit student contact with things in the room to help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, Jeppesen said she had to remove the sign. And in place of some of her usual posters and decorations, Jeppesen was planning to hang signs that show students how to wash their hands or how to greet one another without touching.
"You can wave like spirit fingers on the side," explained Jeppesen, waving her hands at her hips. "Or, you know a high five—in the air, not touching each other."
Under its Smart Start 2020 Plan, Unalaska's schools will open to students—under various COVID-19 mitigation regulations. Students are being asked to wear masks, desks are positioned six feet from each other, schedules for lunch and hallway access will be staggered, frequent hand-washing will be encouraged, and various plexiglass barriers will separate students at lunch tables.
Schools will remain open under these regulations unless the city's COVID-19 risk level changes. If the risk level moves to "high," due to community spread of the virus, students will return to home-based education—which they started in March of last year when the coronavirus arrived in Alaska.
Jeppesen said the start of the school year is going to be a slow one. She said teaching and unteaching social behaviors, slowing down to practice them, as well as learning on her end are going to draw out some of the start of the year routines. Even just learning how to read students' emotions and comfort level with the material is going to be different, said Jeppesen.
"Everybody give me a thumbs up or a thumbs down. How are you feeling about the activity?" said Jeppesen. "Yeah, I know how to do it, or I'm totally lost with a thumbs down. So we use those strategies already, but you might use them more often."
Like Jeppesen, junior high math teacher Emma Carr is also rethinking her pedagogical strategies. Carr has been teaching for about five years now, but she said this year is going to be incredibly challenging, as her teaching style relies heavily on group work and collaboration.
"I did an activity last year with all the kids around one paper, and I took pictures of them without them knowing to show them what good group work should look like, in which everybody's up and around the table and working together and engaged," said Carr. "And so that is an activity that I loved and that I would plan to do again this year, but I can't. So it's definitely forcing all of us teachers to be a lot more creative and discover a lot of other new activities."
But Carr said she is grateful that she will get the chance to see her students, and is using this school year as a chance to slow down and practice more mindfulness in the classroom, something she values and has done before, but has been wanting to incorporate more frequently.
"This year is showing us how important that stuff is," reflected Carr. "And it's always been super important. I should have always been doing more of it. So in some ways, this is a silver lining that it's causing me to look more closely at my teaching, and think about ways that I can be a better teacher. And I think coming out of this, I'll have more strategies and more techniques and activities that I should have been doing all along."
Kent Russell, who teaches high school and junior high physical education, health, algebra, and geography, said learning to teach during the pandemic is slowing his courses down as well, mainly on a structural level, but also forcing him to approach planning as if he were a less-experienced teacher.
"This will be more like a first-year-teacher-year than other years," said Russell. "In previous years where I've taught a repeat class, I already knew [that in the] third week we're going to be getting into [a certain] topic. And all that kind of stuff this year is going to be different because at any moment, we could go to home-based instruction."
While Russell is making back-up plans for home-based learning, he said, as a physical educaiton instructor, the transition to distance education last school year was tough and tedious, and it's something that makes planning this year stressful as well.
"We got through it, but it was not the fun stuff—prepping, grading, and trying to call kids on the phone, and they don't answer," said Russell. "It's just a totally different situation than being able to actually answer questions immediately."
For Unalaska educators, the challenges of teaching during the pandemic go beyond simply not being able to read their students’ reactions and expressions due to face masks, or struggling to help them learn how to navigate online platforms like Zoom—if schools are forced to transition to distance education. Many families don't have access to the internet, and even the internet at the schools is not always reliable, due to low bandwidth on the island. And while Unalaska's two grocery stores and one of its electronics stores may offer a few school supplies—which also come with marked-up island prices—there is no big-box store where families can quickly and easily find all of the extra school supplies required for socially distanced learning.
But despite the unique obstacles of transitioning to new learning methods on a remote Aleutian island—whether that learning be home-based or in-person and socially distanced—teachers, like Jeppesen, are getting creative and finding ways to help students communicate more easily, and get access to necessary materials.
"They don't need to bring pencils or markers or crayons or colored pencils or glue sticks or erasers or tablets or paper or anything like that," said Jeppesen. "So that makes it a lot easier on parents too, we hope, because that can be frustrating living on an island. [Whereas] if you go down south, you might enter a Walmart and they [say] here's your school supply list, and they already have that—but for us, we don't do that."
In her classroom, on each of the students' desks—which are positioned six feet from one another—Jeppesen had laid out individualized material packets with folders, magnetic white boards, and baggies filled with school supplies like markers, crayons, and scissors. She has supplied her students with all the materials they will need for the start of the school year—something she said all of the preschool through fourth grade teachers are doing.
Like Jeppesen and Russell, Carr said she is incorporating materials and resources with her students' unique needs in mind as well.
"I want to set up small study groups within each class that are set up on this platform called Remind that we used last year, and can be used with or without internet," explained Carr. "So if we're doing it at school, and we have pretty consistent access to internet—sort of—then they could access it through the internet. But if they have to go home, then a lot of students can access it through their cell phone, through texting."
The threat of moving to entirely home-based instruction weighs heavily on many educators' minds as they begin teaching this week. But like many teachers, including Jeppesen and Russell, Carr said she is excited to have her students back in the classroom, and to see their faces, if only for a little while. She says Unalaskans are very lucky to live in a town that has the opportunity to start school in-person.
"It's been like six months since I've had them in my classroom. And that's been so hard. The reason I teach is because I love kids, and I love being with kids," she said. "And so I'm just super stoked for the kids to come back into my classroom and to get to see them again. We are so lucky that we actually get that opportunity, even if it's for a short amount of time."
As of Wednesday, the city reports that there are no cases of community spread in Unalaska. Classes are set to continue in person as long as the city's COVID-19 risk level remains below "high."