With ‘highly orchestrated’ plans, Anchorage schools prepare to welcome students back to classrooms

A woman stands in a classroom with her arm on a plastic barrier attached to a student's desk
Gabrielle Brugato stands in her first grade classroom at Williwaw Elementary School in Anchorage on Jan. 15, 2021. She said she had the chance to choose the type of barrier to use in her classroom and chose these plastic barriers because they were flexible and stuck to the table very well. (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

It’s been 10 months since students have roamed the halls at Williwaw Elementary School in East Anchorage. But this week, administrators are expecting the first phase of students to return to classrooms.

(Classes were cancelled early Tuesday morning due to weather, but will resume, in-person, on Wednesday.)

They say they’ve thought of everything — from the time students arrive on school grounds to when they go home. Or at least they’ve tried to, said Assistant Principal Mara Rosenthal.

“It’s a highly orchestrated dance that we’ve choreographed.”

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For example, rather than having everyone arrive through the school’s main doors, students will have designated entrances where they’ll gather at the start of each day. That’s to help prevent kids from different classrooms from interacting with each other.

Rosenthal is expecting about 60% of her school’s Pre-K through second graders to return to face-to-face learning. Class sizes will range from about 10-14 students, she said.

Gabrielle Brugato is a first grade teacher at Williwaw. She’s expecting 13 kids in class. Tuesday will be the first time this school year that she’s met many of her students in-person. She’s curious about how that will go.

“Even though they’ve seen me on the computer every week for so long, they’ve never seen my whole body.”

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Some families are still on the fence, Brugato said, and she’s answering questions about the safety protocols. She’s planning to host a virtual tour of her classroom to help explain to families how school will be different.

The view of a student desk with a plastic barrier and a folder with school supplies
Each student in Gabrielle Brugato’s first grade classroom at Williwaw Elementary in Anchorage will have their own set of school supplies to prevent mingling materials. (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

Each student’s desk will have plastic barriers and they’ll sit two to a table instead of the usual six. Every student will have their own supplies at their desk instead of sharing a box of crayons or markers with the entire class.

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The recommended 6 feet of separation between desks just isn’t possible in her classroom. But other mitigation strategies like scheduling time in the common areas are part of the plan to help keep students safe, Brugato said, both in and outside of the classroom.

Gabrielle Brugato’s first grade classroom at Williwaw Elementary in Anchorage on Jan. 15, 2021. Brugato is preparing to welcome 13 students into her classroom for the first time this school year. (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

“Knowing that my students are not going to be interacting with other students, it’s very important,” Brugato said. “We’re not going to the gym, we’re not going to the cafeteria, we’re basically going to be our own bubble.”

Williwaw families have three different learning options: in-person, ASD Virtual or Williwaw distance learning. With the third option, families can essentially keep doing what they’re doing now, Zoom-ing with a Williwaw teacher at home. Rosenthal said that option will help make the return-to-school plan successful, especially by keeping class sizes down.

“I just feel really fortunate that we’re able to offer that Williwaw distance program, because I feel like the families that are kind of on the fence or have more concerns … we can still accommodate their needs with this distance program.”

Aside from directing hallway traffic and managing in-class activities, Rosenthal said she recently learned one of the district’s two rapid testing machines will be housed at Williwaw.

Rosenthal said there isn’t a broad COVID testing strategy in place. There won’t be temperature checks of students, although staff members will do a health screening each day.

“Overall, the district protocol is to just ask families to really be diligent about looking for symptoms, and then really keeping students home so that it doesn’t spread farther.”

After months of planning and three separate return to school attempts, Rosenthal said she’s excited and anxious but ready to start welcoming students into the building.

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