‘It has exceeded my expectations’: Here’s what in-person school looks like in Mat-Su

a person wearing a mask teaching students
Kelly Mrozik instructs her first-grade students at Dena’ina Elementary School near Wasilla on September 21, 2020. Students in grades 3 through 12 must wear face masks, but younger students do not have to. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Teacher Kelly Mrozik wore a cloth face mask at Dena’ina Elementary School near Wasilla on Monday as she asked her room of 16 first-grade students a math question: What sign do you use when you want to add two numbers together?

Wayne, a student who sat on the carpet in front of her, pointed to a plus sign on the board. 

“Very good,” Mrozik cheered. “Elbows, Wayne!” 

Mrozik and Wayne bumped elbows. That’s the school-during-the-coronavirus version of a high five. There are other versions too.

“Sometimes we even do like a shoe bump, or we do a toe tap, or a happy dance,” Mrozik said. “I do a lot of air high fives from across the room.”

Child wears mask while other children swing on swing set
A student at Dena’ina Elementary School in Wasilla plays by the swing set during recess on September 21, 2020. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Mrozik is among the hundreds of teachers and thousands of students who have returned to Mat-Su classrooms this fall, and she described the first month of school as “amazing.” 

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District is the state’s largest school district to resume in-person classes. And, so far, Mat-Su Superintendent Randy Trani, principals and teachers say it’s going better than expected. Yes, there have been COVID-19 infections, they say. The district planned for that. But, what’s key, according to Trani: The cases have been caught early enough that it doesn’t appear the virus has spread through school buildings.

“It’s going better than we probably could have hoped,” Trani said. 

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A person speaking in front of a class
A teacher addresses students at Redington Sr. Jr./Sr. High School near Wasilla. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

‘Well here it goes, the big experiment’ 

Trani said the school district spent the summer crafting a plan for the school year, but he still felt nervous during the first few days of classes. 

“When those kids were coming back that first week, I remember saying, ‘Well, here it goes, the big experiment,’” Trani said. 

To the south, the state’s largest school district, in Anchorage, had opted to begin the school year in August with all of its classes online. It’s now gearing up for students to start returning to classrooms in October.

A person wearing a mask
Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District Superintendent Dr. Randy Trani. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

In Mat-Su, Trani said, the district has benefited from a list of factors to hold in-person classes during the pandemic.

For one, he said, “Community spread in the Mat-Su Valley is low compared to many other spots in the country.” Also: “Geographically, we’re spread out over a large, large area.”

The number of students in classrooms is generally smaller too, so it’s easier for students to sit farther apart, he said. 

About 65 percent of Mat-Su’s nearly 18,000 students opted to return to in-person classes this fall. The rest are continuing with online classes, or enrolled in a correspondence school, according to the district. 

Trani said support from school staff and families has also been critical. 

“We have to rely on all of the parents, all of the students and all of the staff to make sure that we’re following just some simple rules,” he said.

a person prepares lunch
Server/Cashier Julie Whitfield prepares for lunchtime at Dena’ina Elementary School. Whitfield said lunches had already come individually packaged prior to the pandemic. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Those rules include keeping children home if they’re even a little bit sick, he said. And, school staff are asked to immediately send students to the nurse if they’re showing any symptoms of COVID-19. If kids do get sent home, they can’t return to school until they have a negative COVID test, Trani said. 

Also, families and staff need to be ready to quickly pivot to online learning if a school building must close or if a student must quarantine because of possible exposure to the virus.

Since school started in late August, the district has publicly announced about 10 known COVID-19 infections, and had to temporarily shut down about a half-dozen schools. 

“We’ve shut down schools for a day or two or three, and those get highlighted, but the vast majority of the student days have been in person,” Trani said.

A sign that says "face masks required" in a hallway
A sign at Redington Sr. Jr./Sr. High School. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

‘Your mask does get a little sweaty’

The school district is also requiring all teachers and staff, plus students in grades 3 through 12, to wear face masks.

“When you walk through the schools, it really just hasn’t been an issue. Kids are willing to wear their masks,” Trani said.

At Dena’ina Elementary on Monday, some of the younger kids in kindergarten, first grade and second grade — who aren’t required to have masks— didn’t have one on, including students in Mrozik’s class. 

But the older students did. They’re allowed to take off their masks at lunch, as long as they’re not facing anyone. 

Iselin Swalling, 11, set her mask on the table while she ate. She described wearing a mask at school as “pretty okay.” It’s a fun way to express yourself, she said. Her favorite mask has soccer balls on it because soccer is her favorite sport. But, she said, a mask isn’t ideal when you’re exercising. 

a student eating lunch
Iselin Swalling during her lunch break at Dena’ina Elementary School. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

“Sometimes if you do like gym or something, your mask does get a little sweaty, but other than that, it hasn’t been too weird,” she said.

Amy Campbell, who teaches third and fourth grade at Dena’ina, said making sure her students wear masks has been less of an issue than she expected.

“They can go and take a mask break over by our door, which is not around anyone,” she said. “But they really don’t do that very often.”

A person wearing a mask
Teacher Amy Campbell at Dena’ina Elementary School. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Nearby Dena’ina, at Redington Sr. Jr./Sr. High School, 16-year-old Lexi Seymore wore a face mask as she delivered newspapers to classrooms on Monday afternoon.

“It sucks. But I don’t think people are super upset or anything about it,” she said about the masks. “It’s to keep everybody safe.”

a person holds a stack of newspapers
Lexi Seymore at Redington Sr. Jr./Sr. High School. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

It’s not just the masks that are different at Redington this year. 

To avoid crowding in the hallways, students can’t use lockers. There are fewer classes each day, but those classes are longer to keep students in more contained groups. Also, students are going to class in person just four days a week.

two arrows on the ground point in opposite directions
Directional arrows to increase social distancing at Redington Sr. Jr/Sr High School in Wasilla on September 21, 2020. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

‘It has exceeded my expectations’ 

Back at Dena’ina, Principal Andrea Everett said the biggest challenge so far has been adjusting to a new online platform so students can transition more easily from school to home.

“It is a new program for teachers. And so they’re spending a lot of time getting trained,” she said.

A person wearing a mask
Principal Andrea Everett of Dena’ina Elementary School. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

But, overall, Everett said it seems like most everyone at Dena’ina is happy to be back at school.

“I think it has exceeded my expectations,” she said. “I think people can spend a lot of time worrying about things, especially when we haven’t been through anything like this. So there was a lot of worry. And in reality, it’s gone really, really well.”

At the state health department, Dr. Liz Ohlsen is working closely with schools to set up coronavirus mitigation plans. She said the fact that there’s no evidence of COVID-19 transmission within school buildings yet is huge.

“It’s a testament to how much effort has gone into this,” she said. “Nothing is ever going to be perfect in a pandemic, and unfortunately, we will probably continue to see cases in schools. But the real goal is to stop transmission within schools.”

a banner hung on a fence that reads "we are a covid smart school community"
A banner outside of Redington Sr. Jr./Sr. High School. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Nationwide, public health experts also say that, according to early data, there’s little evidence that the coronavirus is spreading inside school buildings, The Washington Post reports.

Another data point Ohlsen is watching is whether reopening Mat-Su Schools has impacted the number of new coronavirus cases per 100,000 Alaskans in the region. So far, she said, there hasn’t been a significant rise. 

Ohlsen said she’s been impressed. Moving forward, she said, the most significant obstacle will be keeping up the current level of vigilance. 

“I think the huge thing that’s looming for Mat-Su is this thing that’s looming for all of us: COVID fatigue,” she said. “Everybody’s sick of this.”

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