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'The Big Experiment': Alaska School District Returns To Classrooms

Public school teacher Kelly Mrozik holds in-person class for first graders in Wasilla, Alaska. She is required to wear a mask. Her students are not.
Jeff Chen
Alaska Public Media
Public school teacher Kelly Mrozik holds in-person class for first graders in Wasilla, Alaska. She is required to wear a mask. Her students are not.

Kelly Mrozik wears a cloth face mask as she asks her room of energetic first graders a question: What sign do you use when you want to add two numbers together?

Wayne, a student who sat on the carpet in front of her, points to a plus sign on the board.

Mrozik cheers: "Very good. Elbows, Wayne!"

The two bumped elbows. That's the school-during-the-coronavirus version of a high five. There are other versions, too.

"Sometimes we even do like a shoe bump, or we do a toe tap, or a happy dance," Mrozik says.

As schools wrestle with how to hold classes in the middle of a pandemic, Mrozik is among the hundreds of teachers and more than 11,000 students back in classrooms at the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District. She teaches at Dena'ina Elementary School, near the city of Wasilla, about an hour north of Anchorage.

Mat-Su, as the district is commonly called, is Alaska's largest school system to resume in-person learning this fall. And now, more than a month in, students and adults say school is going surprisingly well.

"When those kids were coming back that first week, I remember saying, 'Well, here it goes, the big experiment,'" says Mat-Su Superintendent Randy Trani.

While there aren't any high fives at Mat-Su schools this year, there is a lot of hand sanitizer. Face masks are required for all employees, and students in grades three and above.

Still, there have been students who tested positive for the coronavirus, but Trani says district planned for that. It has a system to quickly identify possible contacts, test them and quarantine them.

"The thing that we're most pleased with is that so far, we haven't had any transmission within the school," Trani says. "So the cases have come from outside of the school. And we think that our mitigation strategies within the school have enabled us to stop it."

Mat-Su has a lot going for it.

The region has a lower rate of coronavirus compared to some other parts of the country. And the district itself is vast: its school cover an area larger than the state of West Virginia. Also, about one-third of the district's 18,000 students are learning online. That leaves fewer kids in classrooms.

Students adjust

One student back in school is 11-year-old Iselin Swalling, who'd rather be in class than at home.

"When you're in person, if there's something you don't get, your teacher is there to kind of help you understand it," Iselin says. "Plus, when you're at home you don't really want to, like, sit up straight in a chair. You just kind of want to sit in your PJs on your bed."

While at lunch at Dena'ina Elementary, Iselin and a friend sit side by side with their masks on the table. Students are allowed to remove their masks during meals, but they can't sit facing each other.

Wearing a mask in school is the biggest difference about this year, Iselin says.

"Sometimes if you do like gym or something, your mask does get a little sweaty, but other than that, it hasn't been too weird," she says.

Her mom, Bridget Swalling, is a first-grade teacher at Dena'ina. She had more reservations about returning to the classroom this year.

"I wouldn't say that I felt afraid, necessarily, but I did have some nerves about what this would look like. What kind of risk am I putting myself in? Or am I putting my students in, by coming back to school?" she asks.

Swalling has 22 students in her classroom and three online. The online students get to know their classmates in morning meetings by Zoom. They can also come to school for activities like recess.

The school district says it can't regularly test all students and staff for the coronavirus, so it's leaning on parents and teachers to make sure students who seem even a little sick stay home.

And while Swalling is quick to praise the benefits of in-person school, she says she's still anxious.

"Every sniffle, every cough, kind of puts me on high alert," Swalling says.

Copyright 2020 Alaska Public Media