Inside this Anchorage classroom, students learn pandemic-style lessons on first day back

Creekside Park Elementary School kindergarten teacher Rihana Gay conducts her first in-person class on Jan. 20, 2021 since the pandemic reached Anchorage in March 2020. (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

In the days leading up to the return to school, 6-year-old Kanae Octuck could barely contain his excitement.

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“I’ve never been to school before,” Octuck said. “I love it when people say that we’re gonna start our school, because it makes me so excited. I cannot pull myself down to wait.”

Octuck joined 16 other classmates in his kindergarten classroom at Creekside Park Elementary on Wednesday morning for their first day of in-person learning this school year.

Students and parents line up to walk into classrooms at Creekside Park Elementary in Anchorage on Jan. 20, 2021. New protocols ask parents not to drop off students until right before school starts, and students are given hand sanitizer when they walk in the door. (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

The day has been highly anticipated. School buildings have been closed to the majority of students for over ten months. The district has tried three times to reopen school buildings. On Wednesday, the district’s youngest learners became the first to return.

RELATED: Anchorage School District expects thousands of students to return to classrooms this week

Students at Creekside lined up in front of the classroom doors, staying 6 feet apart from each other. Some of them were dropped off by parents who gave them their lunches, a change of shoes and a hug as they left.

Rhiana Gay, Octuck’s teacher, greeted her students with hand sanitizer on their way in and directed them to their desks, complete with plastic dividers and individual supply boxes.

Rhiana Gay, a kindergarten teacher at Creekside Park Elementary School in Anchorage gives hand sanitizer to students on their way in to the classroom on Jan. 20, 2021 as part of the new mitigation plan for schooling during the pandemic. (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

The kindergartners’ first assignment was to practice writing their names while eating breakfast. There were constant reminders to keep masks on, maintain the flow of traffic in the classroom and not to give hugs.

The first 20 minutes of in-person instruction were jam-packed with new information and protocols. But Gay anticipated that.

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“I’m not worried about my curriculum, because I have that down pat,” Gay said. “The new thing is the mitigation plans.”

The Anchorage School District’s teacher’s union has been firmly opposed to the current reopening plan as the coronavirus pandemic continues. Anchorage Education Association President Corey Aist said the union disagrees with the district’s 3-6 foot distancing guideline, and eating in classrooms.

“If you’re spending all your day mitigating, and limiting the exposure of COVID-19, why would you eat in that environment and all of a sudden provide avenues for the contagion to spread?”

RELATED: With teachers next in line for vaccines, some in Anchorage want to postpone return to face-to-face instruction

The union filed a preliminary grievance, which argues a violation of teacher’s contracts, last week. It states “some members may refuse to carry out their assignments because their working conditions are unsafe.” Aist said he wasn’t aware of any teachers who decided not to return to the classroom Wednesday — but he did know of teachers who chose to resign or opted to take leave as the reopening process gets underway.

District spokesman Alan Brown said in an email the district had received the grievance and will “address the union’s concerns in accordance with the procedures and timeline outlined in the current AEA contract.”

Gay said she herself considered refusing to return to the classroom. But when she thought about how long the pandemic is likely to last, she changed her mind.

Gay toured her school’s ventilation system and asked for an air purifier and digital thermometer for her classroom. With those items in place, Gay felt it was important to get back to class.

“Because I have our nation’s future in my care. I have Elizabeth Peratroviches in my classroom, John Lewises, Chadwick Bosemans, Stacey Abrams, Sean Kings, and I even have Austin Quinn-Davises,” Gay said. “Whether on Zoom or in our classroom, my students are under my care.”

Working with those students in the classroom is part of giving them a great education, Gay said.

“There was a little saying I told my mom, I said, ‘I’m nervous. I’m scared. I’m happy, but I’m prepared.’”

Steffanie Rick’s daughter, Ariyanna, is also in Gay’s class. Rick said it’s been difficult working full-time, taking care of three children, and trying to help with homework. Rick said she hopes having Ariyanna in a classroom will help her continue to love learning.

Kindergartner Ariyanna Simmons poses in front of her school, Creekside Park Elementary, in Anchorage on Jan. 18, 2021. Simmons mother, Steffanie Rick was unable to see Simmons off to school for her first day of kindergarten so they went on a different day to capture photos to mark the occasion. Rick said her daughter was particularly excited about her new hairstyle that featured beads on the end of her braids. “You can always hear when she’s coming for sure.” (Steffanie Rick)

“I’m not a teacher. I need that teacher’s expertise. I think that there, Ariana is a big sponge, and she’s eager to learn and I just want to see her blossom.”

Rick said she was hesitant to send Aryianna back at first, but a tour of Gay’s classroom eased her fears.

At the end of the day, Gay admitted it was a tough start. She said she felt “underprepared and overwhelmed.”

“Because realistically, asking kids to eat, wear a mask, learn, all in the same environment — that’s not concrete, that’s so abstract,” Gay said. “Kids kissing other kids or whispering in each other’s ears — it was a lot to process.”

Some students struggled to keep their masks on. Eating breakfast, lunch, and a snack proved to be messy.

“That’s why I say I feel underprepared, because I think it’s going to go this way on paper, but in reality it went differently.”

Gay thinks it would have been smoother with a smaller class size and a different protocol for eating in the classroom. All of her students, except for one, showed up for class for a total of 17 students.

There are kinks to be worked out, but Gay said there were some bright spots.

“I did not have any bad behavior,” Gay said. “They listened, they followed directions, they tried their best. They knew my style because of Zoom.”

Gay said she was proud of the students and their efforts. And she’s optimistic.

“I know each day will get better and I just go back to that routine,” she said. “The routine that I will get them in will come.”