LISTEN: Families plug in as districts flip the switch on online learning

Bailey Fuller (left), 15, and Willow Fuller (right), 12, of Palmer work on online assignments in their family’s living room on March 31, 2020. (Courtesy of Andrea Fuller)

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For many students in Alaska, Tuesday marked the first day of school … all over again. In the state’s largest district, thousands of teachers and students logged on to give online learning a try.

And like any syllabus week or transition to something new, right now many are just focusing on getting on the right page – er, portal.

Sitting at a table in the living room with his headphones in and his teacher on the computer screen, Jeffery Hanson, who’s in the 7th grade, checked in for his first class of the day – math. 

“Today, what’s going on is my son is learning how to use the two programs, with his math teacher,” said Tiffany Hanson, Jeffery’s mom. “They’re doing a Zoom kind of orientation today. So he is on, right now, learning how he’s going to be graded.

According to the Anchorage School District’s website, middle school students’ official grade of record will be the final grades they received at the end of the third quarter, just before spring break. Although, students will receive grades on their assignments this quarter for the purpose of getting feedback from their teachers.

“Because we cannot ensure that all middle school students have the technology access and support they need we will not issue formal fourth-quarter grades for cumulative records,” the website says.

High school students will receive grades on their assignments as they normally would, and at the elementary level the district’s website says grades are “not a factor.”

ASD has been using the past two weeks (between spring break, which ended March 13, and now) to come up with distance-learning options for over 45,000 students.

Jeffery Hanson, 13, attends math class online on March 31, 2020 as public schools are closed during the COVID-19 outbreak. A 7th grader at Romig Middle School in Anchorage, he is one of thousands of students logging on this week which his mom says helps brings a sense of normalcy. (Courtesy of Tiffany Hanson)

Hanson said during that time, her son and daughter kept busy by walking their dogs Kia and Pacha, practicing the cello, or doing arts and crafts. But, she said going back to school is a welcome change of pace for them.

“It’s been a little strange for them,” Hanson said. “I’m definitely grateful that Anchorage School District is making the effort to try to get the kids on Zoom and start classes back up because I feel like they need that normalcy.”

For kindergartner Abigail Hanson, online classes can be live Zoom chats with her teacher and a few other students or a pre-recorded video like one she received from her Russian immersion teacher with songs to help her practice the alphabet.

“She was so happy to receive that video,” Hanson said. “It wasn’t a live feed, so she can actually watch the video over and over again. It was so adorable to see her light up and she was so happy to be connected with her teacher once again.”

Juggling her kids’ schedules is made a little bit more complicated because they share a computer right now. But, for the Hansons in Anchorage, this is the first day of what will be several weeks of online schooling designed to help keep students on track academically in the midst of a pandemic. 

As COVID-19 continues to spread across the country, independent news organization EdWeek estimates over 50 million students have been impacted by school closures. 

Some states like Virginia, Vermont, and New Mexico have decided to close school buildings through the end of the academic year and move entirely to remote-learning. But others, like Alaska, are, transitioning to online and distance-learning models before making that decision.

Catch up on the latest news on coronavirus in Alaska.

During a special school board meeting held Monday via Zoom, Mark Stock, ASD’s deputy superintendent, said some districts in other parts of the country chose not to move to try an alternative educational model because they were unable to ensure that they could provide an equal education to every student in the district. Other districts, he said, were able to provide every student with a device and wi-fi access. ASD falls somewhere in the middle. “We staggered equity,” Stock said. “We wanted to guarantee that every senior and every high school student had a device [and] had access.” From there, the goal was to ensure as much equity as possible downward through the different grade levels.

While ASD’s online learning initiative is just getting up and running, the Matanuska-Susitna Brough School District transitioned to online learning about a week ago.

Now that they’ve gone through the orientation period, Andrea Fuller and her family are settling in to a routine. 

“Every morning we get up the kids eat breakfast, they have to be sitting at their table by 9:00,” Fuller said. “They have to tell us what assignments are due for that day, if they have any Zooms – they have to write everything down on a piece of paper for us. And then we kind of just let them go.”

Abigail Hanson, 5, completes her first homework assignment drawing letters and singing along with a pre-recorded video her kindergarten teacher sent her on March 30, 2020. Her mom isn’t concerned as much about her academic progression as she is about her older child and mainly just wants to take care of her mental and emotional health. (Courtesy of Tiffany Hanson)

Fuller’s kids are older, 15-year-old Bailey is a freshman and 12-year-old Willow is in 6th grade. And Fuller said they are pretty self-reliant. The family has set up a table in-front of the living room window and each child has their own computer. She said they access their assignments online through a platform called Google classroom and keep in touch with their teachers through email or Zoom video chats.  

“Personally, I think it’s working very well. I honestly feel like we’re not getting as much pushback from our kids because we’re here with them throughout the day,” Fuller said. “I feel like we’re a little bit more in touch with what’s going on with the online system.” She said she expects to maintain this set up through the end of the school year.

All public schools in Alaska are physically closed until at least May 1st so families like the Fullers and Hansons will have to adjust to their living room and kitchen table classrooms. 

Andrea Fuller, who owns a small business in Palmer, has been able to continue to work from home and watch the kids. But, Tiffany Hanson is a little more concerned about the future. She just got a job as an aid in an operating room and will be returning to full-time work soon. And with her husband also working full-time, albeit from home, she’s not sure how online schooling will go in the coming weeks.

“I think given the context, it’s gonna have to be sufficient. I’ve never wanted to be a homeschool mom. I never thought that I was qualified to be a teacher,” she said. “Unfortunately, in the near future, I will not be able to be very involved at all. But you know, we’ll power through it. And it’s what we got to do to keep our community safe, so that’s what we’ll do.”

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