Fears dissipate, horizons expand after one month of in-person learning in Anchorage classroom

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

At the end of the first day of in-person learning back in January, Creekside Park kindergarten teacher Rhiana Gay said she felt “underprepared and overwhelmed.”

It was a tough day, full of constant reminders about masks and trying to maintain social distancing among 18 5- and 6-year-olds.

But, now Gay said, she feels good — optimistic, even.

“They are learning each other’s names and following expectations,” Gay said. “I’m so thankful for my student’s families for making sure that they come on time, come with masks and ready to learn.”

Gay said she hasn’t had any students test positive for the coronavirus that she’s aware of. A few have stayed home after showing symptoms.

According to district administrators, about 14,000 elementary students have returned to in-person learning, out of about 17,500 districtwide.

Administrators said 25 out of the around 800 currently open classrooms have had to close for a period of time due to COVID-19. Less than 2% of the ASD population has reported a positive case, ASD said.

Gay was open about her fears around returning to the classroom, initially. But that fear is slowly going away, she said, as case counts in Anchorage have declined. She said her students are having fun.

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“A few weeks ago, I asked the students if they wanted to go back on Zoom? And they said ‘No! No! Please don’t make us!'”

The students most enjoy playing together at recess and sitting to eat together, Gay said. They’ve even been helping to remind each other to keep their masks on.

And, of course, they’re learning too.

“We’ve learned new sight words,” Gay said. “For Valentine’s Day, we wrote friendship sentences of what it means to be a friend and what it means to be a kind classmate.”

Right now, Gay said she’s really focusing on getting the kindergartners to where they need to be in the curriculum.

Even though the yearly hoarseness and discomfort in her voice has returned, she said she can hear students clearly now, work with them one-on-one if they need it, and see their handwriting — tasks that were much more difficult with virtual learning.

“Zoom served its purpose,” Gay said. “And it did keep us safe. Now it’s our job to continue to follow the plan, so we can still be safe but be in the classroom.”

This week’s lesson is all about towns, Gay said. The kindergartners will be learning about what’s around them in their Muldoon neighborhood.

Now students are back in class, she’ll be helping them expand their horizons even more: writing, learning and reading about the community in which they live.

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