Zoom staff meeting
Ladd Elementary School held their daily staff meeting via Zoom on Friday because of the virus.

Staff and teachers at public and private schools in the Fairbanks North Star Borough are finding ways to keep the learning going and to connect with families about student needs during the classroom shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

They’re doing it through phone calls, surveys and a wide-ranging use of technology.

“We are making sure that students have the materials they need at home for enrichment activities,” said Tammy Guy, counselor at Lathrop High School, said Friday. “We are checking on their internet capabilities at home, how many devices they have at home if we are having them go to online learning, if they are able to access class online or if we will need paper copies of their work.”

Guy added that they’re letting families know the district is providing meals and checking if they have enough food available at home.

“Obviously every single conversation is different, and so we always open it up at the end to ask if they have any questions specific to their child,” she said.

Some parents of seniors, for example, have asked questions about graduation, Guy said.

Carly Sween, Lathrop principal, noted they’re also checking on student contact information to ensure the school is up to date. It’s a team of various staff working together to make the calls.

Schools are also involved in a “curbside service” for items left on school premises.

“So a parent or a student calls, says, ‘Hey I need my math binder, my book out of my locker, I want to do enrichment activities with it,’” Sween said.

She said school staff get the items, then everyone sets up a time to come pick it up. When parents and students call to let staff know they’ve arrived, they walk out and deliver the items.

Some schools are doing surveys.

“For the schools that are doing surveys, if they haven’t reached everybody, then they are calling also,” said district spokeswoman Yumi McCulloch, who noted that each school’s population will be different.

Sween said she’s hoping calls will be done by the middle of this week.

At the same time, schools are using different methods to tackle online learning. Spruce Tree Montessori School, a private school in Fairbanks, opened its first virtual classroom in ZOOM on Wednesday. ZOOM is a video communications platform.

“We are so very pleased with the way it’s working for our students and have extended our supports into next week, and potentially further, as we align with the guidance of our state and health officials for large group gatherings and social distancing,” wrote Head of School Sabrina Binkley in an email to the News-Miner.

Also using ZOOM is Hannibal Grubis, a West Valley High School math teacher. He has been using this platform, alongside Grade Cam, Google Classroom and Powerschool Learning, to communicate with students remotely.

Grubis, who teaches Advanced Placement calculus, noted that while schoolwork is not required due to Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s mandate, students in his class have done practice exams for their AP tests and sent him their answers.

“I’ve been impressed — students have been emailing me — with just how positive they are,” he said.

Given the circumstances, Grubis said he explained to his class they can change their minds about taking the test but that so far every one of them has said they want to proceed.

“So I’m very impressed with how the students have been handling themselves,” he said.

Friday evening, Dunleavy announced that public and private schools would close through May 1.

Lindsay Saunders, an art and social studies teacher at Ryan Middle School, has been staying in touch as she can.

“I’ve been sending out emails to parents, actually through Facebook as well,” she said, adding that she’s been trying to use any available avenue online.

It’s been a little worrisome, according to Saunders, when she knows about 20% of her students aren’t available to her online. It makes it tough, she said. 

Teachers have come to the conclusion as a district, and as a school, according to Saunders, who was in a video meeting with her school on Monday, that they don’t want to require more than two hours of instructional time per week.

Saunders is consolidating lessons to be about 30 minutes or less.

“That means I’m looking at big ideas and structure. What are the big ideas I want them to work on?” she said.

For example, for geography they’ll look at COVID-19 spread to talk about the concept of place. She thinks the students will be able to find primary sources, such as news articles, online.

“Now art is the one that I’m struggling probably more with because not all kids have art supplies. Not all kids have computer access,” she said.

She wants to do a comic book lesson going over storyboarding and principles of art they have learned this year.

Her school has living documents breaking down when subjects will be taught and how much time would be dedicated to those subjects per day. Then she has to keep her normal office hours, checking in with students and checking her emails.

Saunders noted she will also have to create the same lessons in paper format for parents and guardians to pick up for students who don’t have internet or technology access, with the district still working on how assignments for these students will be picked up and graded.

Contact staff writer Kyrie Long at klong@newsminer.com. Follow her at twitter.com/FDNMlocal