Here’s how one Anchorage elementary school is preparing for in-person learning

Kindergarten teacher Katie McDaniel’s classroom at Huffman Elementary School on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

In teacher Katie McDaniel’s kindergarten classroom at Huffman Elementary School on Monday, barriers made out of PVC pipe and clear vinyl stood on tables.

Colorful circles dotted the floor, to help indicate where the chairs should stay. And, tucked near the door, sat a cart with disinfectant spray and sanitizer, ready for when some of McDaniel’s students arrive in about two weeks.

While not all Anchorage teachers support the school district’s decision to reopen classrooms as the number of coronavirus infections rises rapidly in the city, McDaniel said she’s comfortable teaching in person again. Her classroom provides a view of what in-person learning will look at one Anchorage school during the coronavirus. Each school has its own plan.

“We’ve done so much work and very detail-oriented work, so that we can come back to school safely,” McDaniel said. “I’m excited for my kids to come back.”

Kindergarten teacher Katie McDaniel’s classroom at Huffman Elementary School on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020. Stickers on the floor aim to help students stay farther apart while lining up to go outside.
Stickers on the floor aim to help students stay farther apart while lining up to go outside. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

Under the Anchorage School District’s current plan, in-person learning will resume on Nov. 16 for students in pre-K through second grade at nearly five dozen elementary schools. Higher-needs special education students through sixth grade will also return to buildings that day.

The decision is controversial. School District Superintendent Deena Bishop maintains that in-person learning can resume safely with the right protocols in place to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. But others, including some teachers and parents, counter that the number of infections in the city is way too high, and public health resources are already way too strained, to bring kids and teachers back to classrooms. It’s too dangerous and too risky, they say.

RELATED: ‘We are horrified’: Anchorage teachers, parents blast plan to return younger students to classrooms

Signs in the hallways at Huffman Elementary School encourage mask wearing, hand washing and social distancing.
Signs in the hallways at Huffman Elementary School encourage mask wearing, hand washing and social distancing. Photographed Monday, Nov. 2, 2020. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

At Huffman, principal Chris Opitz said it will be up to each family to decide whether in-person learning is right for them. Students can also enroll in the district’s virtual program and continue their classes online. 

“We’re going to take every single strategy and every single technique that we can, to make it as safe as possible,” he said. “And then we’re going to trust people to make decisions for themselves.”

On Monday, Opitz said, he was still waiting to hear back from more families to determine how many students will return to the school building.

Huffman Elementary School principal Chris Opitz stands in the school lobby with kindergarten teacher Katie McDaniel.
Huffman Elementary School principal Chris Opitz led tours of the school on Monday. The tour included a trip to the classroom of kindergarten teacher Katie McDaniel (right). (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

Monday afternoon, Opitz led district administrators, Anchorage Assembly members, School Board members, reporters and others on tours of Huffman Elementary to explain what students’ school days will look like if they do decide to return to the building. 

RELATED: Anchorage School District still plans to resume in-person learning for younger students on Nov. 16

While the district has provided guidelines to its schools for in-person learning, including that all students and staff must wear face coverings, it’s up to the individual schools to come up with their building-specific plans.

“They’re so detailed to the space and the place,” Bishop said of the safety plans.

“You have to problem solve at the teacher level to find out what is it that’s going to make you comfortable? What is it that you want in your classroom?” 

Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop at Huffman Elementary School on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020.
Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop at Huffman Elementary School on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)
A variety of face masks and face shields displayed on a table at Huffman Elementary School.
The Anchorage School District displays the variety of face masks and face shields it says it will have available for students and staff. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)
Rob Holland, Anchorage School District director of maintenance and operations, describes the different sanitation equipment that will be used at schools. He is holding a high-volume disinfectant sprayer.
Rob Holland, Anchorage School District director of maintenance and operations, describes the different sanitation equipment that will be used at schools. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

At Huffman, Opitz said, “Everything has a procedure.” 

That includes how students will leave the building for recess, and enter it again, and how they will store their outdoor gear

Students will also eat in their classrooms this year, instead of in the cafeteria, Opitz said. And, students won’t go to different classrooms for their specials including music, art and gym. Instead, specials teachers will be assigned a grade-level, and they will go into the classroom to teach multiple subjects.

The idea, Opitz said, is to avoid students in different classrooms mixing as much as possible, to help reduce the spread of the virus if it enters the building. 

Bags hang on coat hooks for students to use to store their outdoor gear.
Huffman Elementary School students will store their outdoor gear in large bags that they can take to their desks so they don’t have to gather at the coat hooks, according to the principal. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)
A special education, self-contained classroom at Huffman Elementary School.
A special education, self-contained classroom at Huffman Elementary School. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)
Huffman Elementary School principal Chris Opitz stands in a classroom pointing to a barrier that's between students' desks.
Huffman Elementary School principal Chris Opitz discusses that desks have been moved at least 6 feet apart, and where there is not enough space to do that, the school is using barriers made out of clear vinyl and PVC pipe. School staff constructed the barriers. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

Once an infection is identified in a school building, an investigation will launch, said Jennifer Patronas, head of the district’s Healthcare Services. 

Patronas said she’ll work with the school nurse and principal to identify the infected person’s close contacts, and to decide who needs to stay home. It could be a row of students, she said, or an entire classroom or an entire school. 

“We’ll follow up with phone calls for everybody that is a close contact and needs to quarantine and a letter, and then everyone else in that cohort or class will get a letter saying, ‘There was a positive case in your child’s class, but they were not identified as a close contact,’ if that’s the case,” Patronas said.

RELATED: Concerns about in-person learning reach Anchorage Assembly

Signs in the hallways at Huffman Elementary School direct people where to walk.
Signs in the hallways at Huffman Elementary School direct people where to walk. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

Another key part of Huffman’s in-person learning plan is that students won’t share supplies like they normally would. 

In McDaniel’s classroom, she has separated toys into bins, and labeled each with a student’s name. Those will be their toys for the week, she said. Then she’ll disinfect the toys at the week’s end, and swap them between containers. 

Huffman Elementary kindergarten teacher Katie McDaniel has sorted her classroom’s toys into separate containers, one for each student.
Huffman Elementary kindergarten teacher Katie McDaniel sorted her classroom’s toys into separate containers, one for each student. The students will use the same toys for an entire week, and then McDaniel will disinfect them. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

Also, McDaniel has adapted how she’ll say hello to her students in the morning.

She said she always lets her students pick how they want to be greeted. But, this year, the options will be different: an air hug instead of an actual hug, an air high five instead of slapping hands. They can also choose to dance or salute or wave or wink.

“We’ve switched them out so that they’re the non-touching kind,” she said.

Huffman Elementary kindergarten teacher Katie McDaniel let’s her students decide how they want to be greeted each morning. Signs outside of her classroom show their options: dance, thumbs up, spirit fingers, air high five, salute, wave, air hug or wink.
Huffman Elementary kindergarten teacher Katie McDaniel lets her students decide how they want to be greeted each morning. But this year, they can’t choose a hug or a high five, instead they can choose an air hug or air high five. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

McDaniel on Monday said she was preparing for at least 14 of her students to return to in-person learning. She has a total of 15 students enrolled in what the district calls “ASD in School” who are currently learning online.

McDaniel said online learning is working better for some students than others this year.

“Our kids are lucky, at our school, that a good majority of them have an adult next to them while we’re Zooming — redirecting or helping,” she said. “But, even within our school, in my class, I have kids that are on their own, and they’re five and it’s very difficult.”

RELATED: This Anchorage mom is trying to keep up with her kids’ online learning and keep a business afloat

McDaniel said, outside of school, in-person learning means she won’t deliver groceries to her parents like she usually does. Instead, one of her siblings will take over.

“It’s a new world. It’s not normal,” she said. “So we all just need to adapt, we need to overcome, we need to work the problem. And that’s how I’ll be working the problem with my 80-year-old parents.”

The Anchorage School District says it will publish each school’s health and safety plan on its website by Wednesday.

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