Anchorage school officials consider remote learning as winter storms keep students home for 4 days

A woman carries a snow shovel near her vehicle stuck on a snowey road.
Residents dig vehicles out of snowy roads under bluebird skies Monday morning in Anchorage. (Valerie Kern/Alaska Public Media).

Monday marks the fourth straight day students in Anchorage have been home from school after a second snowstorm in less than a week battered the city, blocking residents in their driveways and making roads difficult to navigate. 

A major concern for parents is how the Anchorage School District plans to make up lost class time this year. District spokesman MJ Thim said the district is worried that additional snow in the forecast this week could keep schools closed. 

“We are continuing to research all the options, including remote learning, for how we’re going to address future weather closures, given the forecast for the remainder of the week,” Thim said.

Monday is the fifth snow day the district has had this school year. Thim said the district builds two days into the school calendar for weather closures. 

He said a common question from Anchorage parents is why students can’t conduct their classes remotely. The Mat-Su Borough School District held remote learning days last Wednesday, Thursday and again on Monday. 

Thim said the district had moved away from remote learning after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“After last year, we really reset to go back to pre-COVID classroom operations, which was in-person and in the classroom, which was the focus.,” Thim said. “And that’s what we really prefer. We prefer to make up a day when school is closed due to weather conditions.” 

RELATED: ‘Anomaly’ winter storm closes Anchorage and Mat-Su schools, slows traffic

Bright skies and noon golden hour sun shines through tree branches heavy with snow.
Monday morning in Anchorage, bright skies and noon golden hour sun shines through tree branches heavy with snow. (Valerie Kern/Alaska Public Media)

Thim said it’s difficult for teachers to access their materials in their classrooms to even be able to prepare for remote teaching. 

“Because we’ve been out for four days in a row, we haven’t been able to get back into our buildings to address some of those physical logistics,” Thim said, “such as equipment and materials that would need to be produced to return to remote learning.”

Marnie Hartill is an English teacher with the school district’s virtual learning program. She said the switch to remote learning isn’t as easy as having students log on with their teacher. 

“It takes hours of work to convert a lesson that’s in-person to digital-only,” Hartill said. “It takes an incredible amount of work. It’s web design, right? And video making.”

A small neighborhood book exchange with a thick pillow of snow on top.
Snow piles throughout neighborhoods. (Valerie Kern/Alaska Public Media)

Hartill said another issue that has slowed the district’s ability to do emergency remote learning is making sure enough students have access to the internet at home. 

Officials with the Anchorage Education Association, the teachers union, say that remote learning came up during collective bargaining last year. AEA president Corey Aist said there currently isn’t a system in place from the district to implement remote learning in a weather emergency.

“Teachers are willing to deliver online instruction,” Aist said. “Teachers are willing to support their students and support families on weather days. The question is what materials, what technology, what plan is in place to do that.”

A man shovels snow into a pile.
Daniel Villasenor shovels snow from his driveway in East Anchorage on Monday. (Valerie Kern/Alaska Public Media)

Like many other residents, Aist has been frustrated at the slow rate of snow plowing from the city. He said that he doesn’t believe the school district is the main organization standing in the way of kids getting back to school. 

“This is an issue of the muni not being able to clear our streets, and not an issue of the Anchorage School District and teachers not in a position to deliver services to their students,” Aist said.

RELATED: Anchorage Mayor Bronson commits more workers and equipment to snow removal

Thim with the district said remote learning remains an option, and it would likely look similar to how classes operated during COVID.

“It shouldn’t take that long to implement once the loose ends are tied up and the logistics are mapped out,” Thim said. “It’s not like we would be starting from scratch here. We already have a baseline of operations that the district and the community is used to.”

Cars drive on a snow-covered road on a sunny day.
Lunchtime commuters on Debarr Road. (Valerie Kern/Alaska Public Media)

Thim wouldn’t go into details about the other options the district is considering. But Anchorage School Board member Andy Holleman said the district has options to make up that time. Holleman was a long-time teacher and district employee who’d headed the teachers union for four years before being on the school board. 

“There are a number of different ways you can make up that time, and it has to be approved by DEED at the state level,” Holleman said. “We’ve done it in the past by adding some time to regular school days, making existing days longer.”

Holleman echoed that the snow is really unprecedented, and the district hasn’t had to contend with so much snow in such a short amount of time in decades.

“I think most of our weather closures have been for other events like wind events or warming events,” Holleman said.

Weather officials say another 2 to 4 inches of snow is expected Tuesday, with another snow storm possible on Wednesday.

Weather officials say another 2 to 4 inches of snow is expected Tuesday, with another snow storm possible on Wednesday. District officials said in a message to Anchorage families Monday evening that they should plan on schools reopening Tuesday, “barring any unforeseen weather conditions in the next 12 hours.”

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a portrait of a man outside

Wesley Early covers Anchorage life and city politics for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at wearly@alaskapublic.org and follow him on X at @wesley_early. Read more about Wesley here.

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