With COVID cases rising, Anchorage students head back to school

Nunaka Valley 5th grade teacher Stephanie Redrow hands out markers for a morning activity on Tuesday. (Matthew Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

There was a buzz in the air as students arrived at Nunaka Valley Elementary School in Anchorage Tuesday morning. 

“I love seeing the parents’ eyes as they walk their students to the first day of school (and) teacher excitement too,” said Principal Tim Blake. “We have some young teachers on staff and it’s still brand new for them to see kids coming in for the first time. So there’s that excitement that we’ve seen here for a week now while they’ve been setting up those classrooms. And then it all comes to fruition on the first day when kids finally show up.”

Parents dropped off their kids, took their first day of school photos in front of the school sign, hugged them and said goodbye — telling them to “be good.” Students high-fived, lined up outside, and walked together to their classrooms. 

A Nunaka Valley Elementary family pose with their first day of school sign. (Matthew Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

First grader Christian Brown, wearing a shirt that said “first day of first grade,” couldn’t wait to get to class. 

“I’m super excited. Like, a lot, a lot excited,” Brown said. He’s looking forward to seeing his friends and meeting his teacher, and his goal this year is to learn to read a comic book. 

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The whole morning at Nunaka Valley Elementary felt surprisingly normal. But, it isn’t quite a normal first day of school. 

COVID cases in Anchorage are approaching levels not yet seen since last winter when schools were still closed to in-person learning, and hospitals are running out of capacity. All students, teachers, and staff must wear face masks in Anchorage school buildings, which has been controversial among some parents.  

Parent Dorothy McCauley described the last year-plus of pandemic as a “bizarre” academic experience for her kids. This is the third school year that’s been impacted by the coronavirus.

“I mean, his whole school experience has been really thrown by it,” McCauley said.

5th grade students at Nunaka Valley Elementary in Anchorage work on a morning activity on August 17, 2021. (Matthew Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

McCauley’s son was in kindergarten when schools closed to in-person learning at the start of the pandemic, just as he was learning to make friends. Today, he’s starting second grade.

“I went to public school. I really believe in the idea of public school and I like my kids being able to be there to make friends in their community,” McCauley said. “So I’m just glad everybody’s back.”

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McCauley, who is a stay at home mom, said having her son and daughter, who is starting kindergarten this year, go back to school is a relief. Doing a school format other than in-person learning wasn’t even a consideration. 

“I do hope that eventually the masks can come out because of how uncomfortable they are,” she said. “But I understand the caution and the important thing is them being able to be in school.”

Principal Blake said the vast majority of Nunaka Valley families are returning for in-person learning.

And, while a debate over wearing masks has been raging through the district with some parents pushing the district to get rid of its universal mask mandate, Blake said those concerns haven’t reached him. 

“They (families) know the precautions and mitigation pieces that we have in place that were successful last year, and during summer school, will be in place again this fall,” he said.

Nunaka Valley Elementary Principal Tim Blake poses in front of Nunaka Valley Elementary. (Matthew Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Blake said his biggest worry is another shut down or school closure because of the pandemic, but he’s much more prepared for that now. 

“You have to counter it with last year, and the disappointment and the questions,” Blake said. “I just think people feel a sense of relief that we will be back on campus.”

The school still has an isolation room if a student is showing symptoms of the coronavirus and staff is ready to deploy Chromebooks or move online if they have to. 

But for now, Blake said, he’s enjoying the first day of school and getting students acclimated to the building. This year’s first graders aren’t as familiar with the school because last year they ate in their classrooms and they didn’t go to other rooms for music and health or other special classes.  

“This is a big world to them right now,” Blake said as a group lined up in the hallway. “So we’re taking baby steps and setting some routines and rituals and we’ll carry those throughout the year.” 

Blake said it’s a typical opening day. And after more than a year of uncertainty, typical is exciting.

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