‘We’ll figure it out together’: Thousands of Anchorage teachers and students log on for the first day of school

A woman smiles and bends over to look at her laptop screen in her 5th grade classroom
Anchorage teacher Kelly Shrein welcomes 5th grade students to a live zoom session on the first day of school at Northwood Elementary in West Anchorage on August 20, 2020. Shrein says she was up until 11 p.m. the night before responding to parents questions. (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

School is back in session in Anchorage.

But instead of crowded hallways and noisy classrooms, tens of thousands of Anchorage School District teachers and students gathered online Thursday to begin a virtual school year.

From at-home scavenger hunts to guitar strumming to troubleshooting computers, here’s what the first day of school looked like in three Anchorage classrooms as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

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‘Don’t leave yourself unmuted while your cat is barfing in the background’

East High School teacher Kiel Schweizer talks to his guitar students over the computer. He's sitting in the school's large, vacant band room.
East High School teacher Kiel Schweizer talks to his guitar students over the computer on the first day of school.  (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

Music teacher Kiel Schweizer sat in front of his laptop in a big, empty room at East High School and strummed his guitar.

It was about 8 a.m. — the beginning of the first period of the first day of school — and he sang while waiting for his students’ names to pop up on his laptop, signifying their virtual arrival to guitar class. 

“Oh, there’s Daniel! Welcome, Daniel,” Schweizer called out. 

This is Schweizer’s 16th year teaching. He’s energetic and animated. He said he’s trying to stay positive, but this year feels overwhelming, like his first year of teaching all over again. 

“It’s such a sea change from the way we’ve been doing business,” he said.

Schweizer has spent weeks turning his in-person classes into online lessons. It’s tough, he said. All materials must be uploaded to the web, so he can’t run to the copy machine to make last-minute handouts. Students can’t play their guitars in unison like they could in the classroom.

“You can’t just say, ‘Okay, everybody unmute yourself,’” he said. “It’ll be a little bit off because of their internet speed.”

For now, Schweizer said, he’s focused on getting to know his students, making sure they have instruments and teaching them the ins and outs of virtual school, like proper video etiquette. 

“Don’t leave yourself unmuted while your cat is barfing in the background or something,” Schweizer said and broke into laughter. “Make sure, you know, if your camera is on, that it is showing something appropriate.”

By the end of Schweizer’s first class, 12 out of 16 registered students had logged on. Not seeing the students face-to-face was the most difficult part of the day, he said. Many had their cameras off and microphones muted. It was hard to tell if they were following along, if they were interested. And, when Schweizer looked up from his laptop, all he saw were stacks of chairs and music stands.

“You’re in an empty room,” Schweizer said, “and you never really lose sight of the fact that you’re in an empty room.” 

But, he said, he knows virtual school is hard for his students too, and they’ll take it one day at a time. 

“We’ll figure it out together,” he said.

‘It’s so good to see your faces!’ 

A woman points her laptop camera towards herself and points to the words "Exploring Virtual Class" on a whiteboard in her classroom
Northwood Elementary Teacher Kelly Shrein points to an agenda item for her 5th grades students. (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

Across town at a nearly-empty Northwood Elementary School in Spenard, Kelly Shrein waited for her 28 students to log on.

Shrein was one of only a few teachers inside the building. Teachers can work from school or home, and most chose to be home.

Shrein said she wanted to teach from her classroom because she has three children under the age of six at home. And with everything else being so different, she wanted her students to see a familiar space. 

Shrein teaches many of the same students as last year. She followed them from 4th to 5th grade.

“So the kiddos will see me in the classroom that they remember and I hope that makes their first day just that much more special,” she said.

Like other teachers and parents Thursday, Shrein wrestled with technical difficulties.

Some of her students were still waiting to get laptops from the district, and parents still had a lot of questions about logging on, even as class got underway.  

“How do I let everyone into the room?” Shrein asked as she fiddled with her laptop.

Then students’ images appeared.

“Hi guys! It’s so good to see your faces,” Shrein said. “Some of you got haircuts!’”

“Alright, I’m going to come sit over here, remember in my rocking chair, kinda like you guys are here with me.”

Shrein went over some ground rules, like expectations for the class and how to navigate the virtual classroom. Then she guided students through an at-home scavenger hunt and shared a pep talk from Kid President. The day’s Zoom session lasted about an hour. 

After it wrapped up, Shrein said her cheeks hurt from smiling so much and she was a little sweaty, but happy with how things went. And she hopes more students log on for day two. 

Nine of her students missed the first day of class. Shrein made a few phone calls and learned that some forgot, others overslept and some didn’t have computers yet. 

“I’m a little more nervous this year”

East High School language arts teachers Derek Reed sits in front of his laptop in his classroom. He is talking with his students during the online lesson on the first day of school.
East High School language arts teachers Derek Reed talks with his students over the computer on the first day of school. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

Back at East High, language arts teacher Derek Reed read aloud some of the adjectives his 19 students in honors English used to describe themselves: Unique, clever, tired, motivated, active, gamer.

One by one, the students had called out the words as part of a getting-to-know-you activity, their voices streaming through Reed’s laptop and filling the classroom.

Reed described himself Thursday morning as excited, anxious and nervous.

“I’m a little more nervous this year because my brain is trying to wrap itself around the idea of what school looks like when it’s completely online,” he said. 

While virtual school isn’t ideal, Reed said, it seems like the best option right now.

“There are too many variables with the pandemic,” he said. “Too many things that can go wrong, can go awry, that would endanger students, their families and our community.”

Reed said he’ll try to keep his students engaged this fall through surveys and forms that they’ll have to fill out, and group discussions. Plus, he’ll lean on a little bit of acting — dramatically changing the tone of his voice when he reads texts aloud.

“Really kind of putting on a show,” he said.

Engagement is key, and among this year’s biggest challenges, said East High principal Sam Spinella.

East High School Principal Sam Spinella sits behind his desk wearing a face shield.
East High School Principal Sam Spinella on the first day of school at East High. Photographed on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

The school year will be harder on some students than others, Spinella said. For some, school is their safe place. Some don’t have a quiet space to work outside of school, or the support. 

“When we have students in the classroom, we have the ability to try to encourage them and motivate them and we have that face-to-face interaction,” Spinella said. 

“But right now,” he said, “one of the biggest challenges is to get them connected and then also to stay connected.”

Reach reporter Mayowa Aina at maina@alaskapublic.org and Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@alaskapublic.org.