Juneau students are masked up and back in classrooms

Two teenagers in face masks look over a stairs at school.
Thunder Mountain High School seniors Kafoa Maka and Ammon Kawakami watch students head to lunch on the first day of school on Monday in Juneau on Monday, Aug. 16, 2021. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Hundreds of Juneau public school students returned to classrooms on Monday for the first day of the school year.

Many students, teachers and administrators said they were excited to see each other in person again.

That included Kafoa Maka, a senior at Thunder Mountain High School.

On Monday afternoon, Maka and his friend Ammon Kawakami watched a sea of masked students rush down the stairs. Maka said he switched to learning at home last year when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and he thinks in-person school will be better for him academically. 

“I took all online classes, and they were all pretty easy to get distracted in, but now that I’m back here in the real school, I think I’m going to be able to learn better and like — I don’t know — just learn more and be more focused on what I need to do,” he said.

Kawakami homeschooled last year. He said heading back to in-person classes feels normal. But the face masks are complicating things for him. The Juneau Board of Education decided last week to require masks for everyone inside school district buildings.

“I get, like, completely confused because I don’t want to approach (people) and call them by the wrong name and have them be a completely different person,” said Kawakami.

RELATED: Majority of Alaska students will start the school year under universal mask policies

Another change this year is that the Juneau School District is offering free breakfast and lunch to all students at every school. Juneau Schools Chief of Staff Kristin Bartlett said a lot of students took them up on that offer. 

That was apparent on Monday as many students headed through the lunch line at Thunder Mountain High.

A man in a hat and face mask puts food on a lunch tray.
Rusel Rotano serves lunch on the first day of school at Thunder Mountain High School on Monday, Aug. 16, 2021, in Juneau. The Juneau School District is offering free lunch to all students this year. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Meanwhile, at Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School, registrar Maria Kappler said she’s happy to be back — and the kids are too. The school feels alive, said Kappler, and she’s excited for a return to normalcy. 

“Last year it was pretty lonely actually, especially the first part when it was all distanced,” she said. “And then even when they came in, there were so few students it just didn’t feel the same.”

A girl with a face mask ties a friend's shoe in a classroom.
Maddie Bass watches as Zara Ritter ties her shoe during an art class on the first day of school at Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School on Monday, Aug. 16, 2021, in Juneau. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Kids ran around and laughing and playing on their phones on Monday — it did feel close to normal.

But there were a few things that stood out. For example, students that filed into Miah Lager’s art class had to sit in very specific spots at each table. It took a few minutes for them to figure out the map and settle in. Lager apologized to the class, but told them it’s important to know which kids are sitting next to each other. 

Kappler said that’s for contact tracing, in case anyone gets infected with the coronavirus. 

“We’re trying to keep close tabs on that even though, you know, we had more students than expected because of budget cuts, so a little tight,” she said. “But, of course, knowing where they’re sitting and sitting next to each other is essential.”

Two boys wearing face masks look at a teacher.
Students at Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School listen to Ray Imel talk about a Makerspace class on the first day of classes on Monday, Aug. 16, 2021, in Juneau. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Next door to Lager’s art class, Ray Imel continually reminded kids to pull their masks up over their noses. He told them that it’s important so they can all continue to meet in person. 

The school district’s plan right now is for five full days a week of in-person learning. Everyone has to mask up when they’re inside, but they can remove their masks when they go outside. 

The district reported that 300 more students attended school on the first day this year compared to 2020, though they won’t have a full count until after Kindergarten starts on Thursday.

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