A hallway at Pelican School in 2019. The school opened its doors Wednesday to students. Students in the building will be learning alongside their peers virtually using Google Meet. (Becky Meiers/KCAW)

Over the last few months, schools across Alaska have been busy creating detailed plans for how to operate safely and effectively during the coronavirus pandemic. One of the first schools in the region to put the plan to the test is Pelican’s. School started Wednesday, Aug. 19 in the small Chichagof Island community. KCAW’s Erin McKinstry spoke with the Pelican City School District superintendent, Norma Holmgaard, about the school’s plans for the upcoming school year.

KCAW: Do you mind just summarizing some of the key points of this plan. What is Pelican looking at when it comes to opening initially?

NH: Sure. There’s actually three sections. One is conditions for learning. And that’s all about, you know, keeping the facility clean and disinfected and distancing for students and wearing masks and all of those. And then the second section is continuity of learning. How are we going to know what our students need to learn and where are they academically? And then the last one is capacity. That means, can we keep it going? If we’re going to do remote, can we keep that going? And if we’re gonna do in-school…

And then, we developed a plan for a low risk situation. And Pelican currently is low-risk, we don’t have any cases in town. And then a medium risk, where we might have a case, especially if it’s a community spread, where somebody got sick, but nobody knew how that happened. Then what would we do in a medium risk situation, and then high risk. High risk, we would go totally to remote learning. 

In Pelican, we just have one school. It’s a K-12 school. And we’re actually projecting 11 students for this fall. That’s a pretty small number, which makes social distancing and cleaning and disinfecting much more doable. We did conversations with all of our parents to find out what their needs were, what were their concerns. And we did give them the option of continuing with remote learning. And we did have a couple of families that have said that they’re just not quite ready to feel that sending their kids to school would be the safe things, and they would like to continue with remote learning. And so, we will continue to provide remote lessons. We’re using Google meet, so it’s face-to-face. They can see their teacher, their teacher can see them. They can see their classmates.

KCAW: Sure. I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about the importance of in-person instruction and why the school district is deciding to have in-person instruction be kind of the primary option, at least to start with?

NH: Right. You know, we…we asked our parents. And our parents really would like to see their children back in school. And we believe that because of our size, we can do that safely. But our teachers didn’t…their preparation programs didn’t teach them a lot of skills in teaching via the web. And so, our best skills are when children are in the classroom with us where we can re-group and redirect and re-teach and do all of those things. And it’s really hard to do those things online. You know, many of our parents work, and so having that continuous support happens in the classroom naturally and online it’s not always as consistent.

KCAW: Sure. I’m also just curious to know a little bit more about how the remote learning went in the spring, and you know, how the district has maybe finessed that or prepared in case you do have to go remotely again if you do enter that high-risk zone.

NH: Right. You know, when schools shut down in the spring, nobody had forewarning. Our teachers came back from spring break and immediately school was shut down. So they had no time to prepare to, to build up their skills, take webinars on how to effectively teach remotely. And so they did the very best that they could. They worked hard at it. But it was really, really difficult. The kid’s parents weren’t prepared to be their teachers either. And so that…it was very, very difficult. And everybody did the best that they could, but it wasn’t ideal.

Since then, our teachers have had time to get involved in some professional development on how to effectively work via the web using technology to provide instruction. You know last year, packets went home. Parents were supposed to work with kids on the packets. The information came back. This year, we have agreed that instruction has to be instruction. And so online, it needs to be face-to-face. It needs to be virtual. And so, we have new teachers this year, and they have worked really hard. They both showed up way early and are really putting together a program that would be much more comprehensive for our kiddos.

You can find links to all of the Alaska Smart Start Plans that the state has approved here.

Erin McKinstry is a Report for America corps member.