Fever checks and small groups: Anchorage private school students are returning to classrooms

Michael Bauzon, a teacher and dean of student affairs at Lumen Christi High School, takes students' temperatures outside.
Michael Bauzon, a teacher and dean of student affairs at Lumen Christi High School, takes students’ temperatures outside on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. The small Catholic school is among a handful of private schools in Anchorage holding in-person classes. Tuesday was the second day of the school year. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

It’s a back-to-school week like never before in Anchorage. 

While the coronavirus has pushed the Anchorage School District to start the year online on Thursday, small private schools in the state’s largest city are pressing ahead with in-person classes. 

Private school administrators say they’re keeping students in small groups, increasing sanitation and taking it day by day. 

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Staff greets a student and parent outside of Lumen Christi Catholic High School. Everyone is wearing a face covering. It's the second day of school.
Lumen Christi High School Principal Brian Ross (left) waves to students arriving for the second day of school on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. Lumen Christi is among private schools in Anchorage holding in-person classes. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

Lumen Christi High School Principal Brian Ross greeted students as they stepped out of their parents’ cars on a brisk Tuesday morning in Anchorage for their second day back at school. 

“How’re you feeling this morning?” he called out.

“Make sure you have your face mask on there, Nicholas!”

“Step right up to Mr. B.” 

Mr. B is a teacher at the small, private Catholic school and its dean of student affairs. He stood nearby with a thermometer. Students need a face mask and a temperature under 100 degrees Fahrenheit to enter the building. 

Michael Bauzon, a teacher and dean of student affairs at Lumen Christi High School, takes a student's temperature outside on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. The small Catholic school is among a handful of private schools in Anchorage holding in-person classes. Tuesday was the second day of the school year.
Michael Bauzon, a teacher and dean of student affairs at Lumen Christi High School, takes a student’s temperature outside on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

Then, they’re directed to hand sanitizer and sent to their classrooms. There’s no mingling in the hallway. They’re not using lockers or the water fountain. There’s no sharing. 

This year’s handbook encourages students to wash both their uniform and their face mask every day. 

This is school during the time of the coronavirus.

“Yesterday I told the students, ‘Expect to just sanitize your hands over 15 times,’” Ross said. “We’re just going to get in that process: Frequent hand washing, frequent sanitation.”

A sign hangs on a water fountain at Lumen Christi High School in Anchorage that says: "I'm not going to work until the pandemic is over, so.... Don't push my buttons!"
Lumen Christi High School is replacing its water fountains with water-bottle fillers this month to reduce the number of high-touch surfaces in the school as the coronavirus pandemic continues. A sign reads: “I’m not going to work until the pandemic is over, so… Don’t push my buttons!” (Lumen Christi High School)

Lumen Christi is among the private schools in Anchorage holding in-person classes this month. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Anchorage public school students are starting the school year from home.

Ross said he thinks it’s easier for private schools to bring students back to the classroom. They can make changes more quickly to their buildings, schedules and workforce. They don’t have big school bus systems to sort out. Also, their schools are smaller and so are their class sizes. Lumen Christi enrolls about 90 students, and its average class size is around 12, Ross said. 

At the Anchorage Montessori School, class sizes range from about 10 students to one group with 20, said executive director Rick Toymil. Staff and students ages 5 and older must wear face masks, he said. The school isn’t allowing visitors this year, and classes won’t mix. 

Toymil said the school also spent about $9,000 to install special ionization systems that are supposed to kill pathogens in the air.

“If it works, it’ll make the place even safer,” he said. 

Toymil said the school will shut down for at least three days if it has a confirmed case of the coronavirus.

He said he thinks the plan for this year works because of the school’s small size.

“If I had to try to open a school of 450 students right now, it would be very, very difficult to put this plan into place,” he said.

At Pacific Northern Academy, Laurie Hoefer, the head of the school, said the decision to hold in-person classes this fall has attracted increased interest from parents looking for an alternative to virtual learning. 

The Anchorage School District reported Tuesday that 139 of its students had transferred to private schools. 

RELATED: Anchorage School District enrollment is down 11 percent

“We have been overwhelmed with inquiries,” Hoefer said. “So in the beginning of July, when the ASD shared what their proposed plan was, our phones started ringing off the hook.”

The independent, private school enrolls students up to 8th grade, and charges tuition of up to about $18,000 a year. 

Hoefer said while the school has more new students this fall, it also lost some families who have moved out of state and others who left when the school announced that students must wear face masks.

Hoefer said the school’s plan for the year hinges on increased sanitation and keeping students in small, contained groups, so that if the virus enters the building it, hopefully, will not spread very far.  

“In the past, we have offered art and music and Spanish, and we’re not at the beginning because we don’t want to introduce another adult to that small group,” she said.

Teachers will stay with their students for lunch and recess, and students will have a half day on Friday so the educators can have planning time.

Hoefer said she also expects students to spend a lot more time outside this fall. 

Staying outside is a focus at the Anchorage Waldorf School too, said executive director Stephanie Smith.

“We plan to have our classes pretty much outdoors completely, especially to start,” she said. “We’re putting up canopies in our yards and in our parking lots, and going to move desks out there and chalkboards and all of that and actually have learning outside.”

Smith said the private school is also looking at buying heaters to keep outdoor classes going as long as possible. 

She said while it’d be “foolish not to feel cautious” about this school year, she feels like the Waldorf school has a solid plan, plus experience with education during the coronavirus.

“We are just finishing up this fantastic summer camp,” she said. “Cases in Anchorage were rising, and yet we didn’t have any illness at the school.”

In other states, some schools reopened their classrooms to students again this month only to quickly close again after coronavirus infections were found. Teachers have also raised concerns about the risks of in-person schooling.

Smith and the other private school administrators said a few of their teachers have decided to not return to their classrooms this year because of health conditions that put them or their family members at higher risk of developing serious symptoms from the coronavirus.

“We have some teachers that prefer not to teach right now,” Smith said. “We honor and respect that. And then others that are at the school right now setting up for next week.”

At Lumen Christi, Ross said the school will take this year one week at a time.

Right now, students are spending just half the day in the building, and going home at lunch while the school waits on an order of portable, plexiglass shields. The idea is that students will eventually set up the trifold partitions so they can take off their masks and eat lunch, Ross said.

He said each Thursday the school will also decide what the next week of classes will look like and whether classes will be in-person, online or a hybrid model. He said they’ll take into account the percent of positive coronavirus tests in Anchorage and the number of infections in the city.

Ross said he’s approaching this school year like he approached missions as a Marine. 

“You’re looking at all angles,” he said. “You develop controls and you implement procedures that would help mitigate that risk to a safe level.”

Reach reporter Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@alaskapublic.org or 907-550-8447.