Mt. Edgecumbe students say goodbye as they board buses for the Sitka airport. Academic principal Bernie Gurule says graduation was foremost on the minds of students when they learned that they were being sent home early. Although it’s unlikely the event will occur on May 7 as planned, “Never say never,” said Gurule. A virtual graduation ceremony is also in the works. (KCAW photo/Berett Wilber)

If and when Alaska’s students return to classrooms on March 30* (as of 3-20-20 Alaska schools have been closed until May 1, see note below), Mt. Edgecumbe High School students in Sitka will not be among them.

Gov. Dunleavy on March 16 ordered all of Alaska’s residential schools to send their students home by the end of the month, and Mt. Edgecumbe — the largest of the state’s four boarding schools — is well on its way toward meeting that mandate.

But that doesn’t mean education is over. As KCAW’s Robert Woolsey reports, Mt. Edgecumbe is rapidly transitioning to distance learning.

Even in a normal year, the over 400 students enrolled at the state-run Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka never have a spring break — and this abrupt closure of the school shouldn’t be considered one.

Academic principal Bernie Gurule says every student is returning home with a state-issued laptop computer, and school will proceed… remotely.

“They’re going to be studying at home,” said Gurule. “We’re going to use the Zoom system, and we use Google Classroom. Most of our teachers have been using that all along, for quite a while. So we’re going to be trying to do some distance delivery that way.”

Distance learning is already the norm in Alaska’s university system. But Mt. Edgecumbe students come from all across the state — from some of the smallest dots on the map — where internet bandwidth is limited, sometimes to just the local school.

Gurule says the Mt. Edgecumbe faculty is up to the challenge.

“We’ve got some creative teachers, teachers with real good experience, and we’re going to work together with them and share that knowledge, and hopefully pick up a few more things,” Gurule said. “We’re going to learn a lot from this process, Rob, I can tell you that. We will learn a lot from this process.”

I’m Stephen Courtright, and I teach Music over at Mt. Edgecumbe High School.

Stephen Courtright. Here is a teacher with a unique distance-delivery problem.

Courtright – Freshman music class, where we’re teaching ukuleles, a guitar class, choir, and a rock band class. 

KCAW – Are you going to try and pursue this teaching remotely?

Courtright – Distance delivery is going to be very interesting. I have been joining online communities. There’s a Facebook page I joined over the weekend that had 330 members at the time I joined it, and it’s over 19,000 people now. Because nationwide, this is a thing we’re all doing: Trying to figure out how we can teach at a distance, manage our content, and do good work.”

Courtright says about 60-percent of Mt. Edgecumbe students are still on campus. I’m talking to him outside of Sitka’s BackDoor Cafe, where he’s come during his prep to pick up some bagels for remaining students. He says he’s actually looking forward to holding rock band classes over the internet, since that’s how a lot of music is done nowadays.

Courtright – I was telling my students it’s a professional model. A lot of the things you hear on the radio, you’ll have one person recording in Atlanta, another recording in New York. A producer who’s in L.A., and then they tap someone else who’s in London to record something else, and they never actually get in the same space. 

KCAW – Is there going to be a virtual rock band performance for a virtual graduation this spring?

 Courtright – We’re working on it. We typically put together a senior song. The seniors have already chosen the song they’re going to work on, and we’re going to do everything we can to come up with a recording of it that can be used for whatever happens with the graduation ceremony.

Juniors Dayton Hoble (right, St. Mary’s) and Arthur Heckman (left, False Pass) pose for a picture before leaving Mt. Edgecumbe. They each say they plan to return in the fall for their senior year. (KCAW photo/Berett Wilber)

Graduation is always a big deal at Mt. Edgecumbe. Families travel to Sitka and pack the Performing Arts Center to see their students walk across the stage. Many parents have gone to Mt. Edgecumbe themselves.

Mr. Gurule is not quite ready to say it won’t happen.

“Never say never. We’re thinking that could still possibly happen for us, bringing the seniors back to Mt. Edgecumbe High School,” he said. “We know that’s a longshot, but we haven’t given up that hope yet, either.”

The school is giving up on standardized testing, however. Gurule says Mt. Edgecumbe will obtain a waiver in order to not administer state testing (PEAKS/MAP) this spring.

And prom? There’s no distance-delivery for that, unfortunately. But following a graduation photoshoot for Sitka’s newspaper on Monday (3-16-20), students shed their caps and gowns to reveal their prom finest underneath. Gurule says this inspiration came from the students.

“A lot of the girls already had their prom dress ordered and it came, and they just wanted to make sure that they were able to wear it,” Gurule said. “I didn’t see any dancing, per say, but I saw a lot of group pictures, just like you would at a prom.”

And the boys were no slouches. Gurule says many of them dressed up as well for the day. “They’re anticipating that this might be the last time they see some of their friends,” he said. “Maybe for the rest of their lives.”

*Note: Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Friday evening (3-20-20) issued a mandate ordering all public and private schools in the state closed to students through May 1, 2020.