Students and teachers adjust to a semester without classrooms

A rapid move online has tested educators’ creativity

Alaska schools are closed through the end of the school year. (March 14, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Many students welcome a day or two off school. However, the school shutdown that now extends to the end of the academic year may be too much of a good thing. Conducting classes by video chat, students are more annoyed about being unable to hang out with classmates than they are frightened of a possible apocalypse, educators said.

“When I ask them to describe their experiences, the vast majority are bored,” said Mt. Eccles Elementary School teacher Krysta Williams. “The main thing they’re complaining about is that they don’t get to see their friends.”

Williams has spent the past year organizing field trips for her sixth grade students. Now, she’s navigating the hectic transition online, where she holds office hours and delivers lessons using Google Hangouts. Williams has adapted engineering projects to use household materials, challenging students to design aerodynamic paper airplanes and to calculate the momentum of a bucket traveling down a zipline. Turning these projects into competitions helps preserve some of the activity’s social element, though students only see one another within boxes on a screen.

When Williams asked students to begin reading the novel “Restart” by Gordon Korman, she was surprised how many blazed through the entire book in a week. And other silver linings have emerged: some student behaviors that might distract everyone in the classroom have less impact via video chat. However, these serendipitous effects don’t make up for the alienation of social distancing, Williams said.

While self-isolation removes some sources of distraction, others may be all too present, said Emily Stoddard, prevention coordinator for Cordova Family Resource Center.

Cordova Family Resource Center Prevention Coordinator Emily Stoddard packs up outfits that would have been available to students attending the 2020 prom. (April 13, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

“There’s a new level of discipline that’s needed to sit there and focus on their schoolwork when they have so many other distractions easily available,” Stoddard said. “You know your Playstation is right there. You say, ‘I could do schoolwork, but I also want to level up.’”


Cordova’s youth have impressed Stoddard with their resiliency, she said. However, any student who feels the need to vent about their problems to a neutral party is welcome to call CFRC’s help line at 907-424-4357, she said.

State officials announced the decision to extend school closures on April 9. Mt. Eccles Principal Gayle Groff lauded the state for making the announcement early enough to allow schools to revise their plans, cooking up online substitutes for graduation ceremonies and other long-awaited moments of the student experience.

For Groff, who plans to retire July 1, the coronavirus outbreak has written an unexpected final chapter to her 36-year tenure at Mt. Eccles.

“I feel like it’s a new mountain to climb!” Groff said. “But it’s certainly a weird thing to end my career on.”

Cordova School District has moved classes online with surprising speed and flexibility, said William Deaton, Cordova Jr./Sr. High School senior class president. Deaton, who was home-schooled for several years, entered public school during the eighth grade in order to expand his social opportunities. Now, in 12th grade, Deaton has been sent back home — deprived not only of the opportunity to do lab work and to spend time with friends, but also to attend his graduation ceremony. The abrupt collapse of ordinary school life may be the largest obstacle some students have encountered until now, he said.

At Cordova School District’s weekly food distributions, traffic moves in one direction in order to facilitate social distancing. (April 14, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Deaton was troubled by the sometimes-churlish accusations that Facebook posters have directed toward young people sighted in public not wearing masks, or otherwise falling short of public health recommendations.

“We are in a more difficult situation than the adults,” Deaton said. “I say it that way because adults have lived their lives and gone through disappointments before… This is the first major setback, probably, in our lifetime, that we’ve experienced. I would encourage the adults in the room to please be patient with us. We don’t want to get anyone sick. We don’t want to hurt anybody. But we are still kids, and we’re going to make mistakes. We are going to fall, and we need you guys to be here to pick us back up. We are still kids, and we need the adults to still be the adults, and to act like it.”

Beginning March 31, the school district has distributed lunches and breakfasts to children 18 and under, regardless of their enrollment status. As well as finding an alternative to the traditional senior graduation ceremony, the district is exploring options to recognize students graduating sixth grade, wrote Superintendent Alex Russin in an April 10 letter.

“My heart goes out to people who are trying to work at home, teach their kids at home and try to manage their entire household, at the same time,” Groff said. “It’s a big task, and the school district… wants to work with families to make this as seamless as possible and as low-stress as possible. Hopefully, we’ll be able to look back on this and be better for it.”