Highs and lows from the first week of school in Juneau

The offices of the Juneau School District, pictured here on Aug. 6, 2020, are located at 1208 Glacier Ave., in Juneau.
The offices of the Juneau School District, pictured here on Aug. 6, 2020, are located at 1208 Glacier Ave., in Juneau. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

After the first week of school in Juneau, families are reporting highs and lows with the all-distance learning start of the year. 

For some kids, video conferencing doesn’t come naturally. With some prodding from his mom, 8-year-old Beckett Walker answers a few questions over Zoom.

“Say, ‘I’m Beckett.'”

“I’m Beckett.”

“Can you tell him what grade you’re in and what school you go to?”

“I’m in third grade and I go to JCCS,” he said, begrudgingly. 

Mom Jen Walker said Beckett hasn’t been a fan of Zoom. He’s in third grade through Juneau Community Charter School. With a little patience, he shared about his school work and his day, which included a separate Zoom session earlier. 

“Read a little bit. Garfield,” he said. 

He did a hands-on math assignment. 

“Just cutting out things. Blocks, paper blocks.”

And he rode his bike. Or, in the super-jargony words in sample schedules the district published, he did an “additional asynchronous outdoor engagement activity.”

So far, he doesn’t seem to have strong opinions about school this year. He said it’s “just boring.”

But his mom said he’s doing well, with some parental help. 

Aurah Landau is a single mom with a fourth grader at Harborview Elementary School. She said her son started out well.

“He’s excited, he had a really good first day. His teacher’s really wonderful, she made a really wonderful, um –”

In the next room where he’s doing his school work, his ears must be burning because he pipes up, “I can hear you!”

“– welcoming setting. And, um –” he pipes up again, “– so he’s pretty excited, he’s really liking it,” she said with a laugh. “It’s just me!”

She said she isn’t ready to give up on the dream that school from home will be as easy for her as school actually at school. She said the school district has been on top of technical support, but it seems like she’ll still have to help out a lot. 

“We can’t just, like, set it and forget it,” Landau said. “We can’t just, like, put him on the Zoom and walk away and he’s got a full day of schooling. That’s not how it’s gonna work.”

In the living room, she’s got her work-from-home desk set up next to his desk. 

Her son’s day is more structured than it was last spring when the pandemic led Gov. Mike Dunleavy to close school buildings. Schools pivoted to things like prerecorded videos and electronic assignments, with some short sessions of live instruction over video conference. 

Landau said for her son, it was basically an early summer vacation, with some school-related Zoom meetings to stay connected. 

“And part of it was that you know, we still were, as parents, were going hucklety-bucklety on our full-time schedules. And there just, you know, just wasn’t room to deal with adding more. I think the goal for us in the spring was consistency, and you know, emotional and mental health. And it wasn’t academic learning.” 

Elementary school students automatically passed their spring trimester. 

For the new school year, daily attendance and grading expectations are more normal. 

“He can’t just, you know, check out — like was kind of what I think everyone did last spring,” she said. 

She said the first few weeks will be all about getting logistics and routines down. 

Rebecca Braun has a 12-year-old in seventh grade, who’s been questioning the value of school this week. 

“The real stress I think this fall has been trying to establish that school matters,” she said. “School’s important, and you do have to do it. And that’s something I didn’t really have to do before.”

He used to opt into more challenging classes. But since things went remote, he’s lost interest. She’s not sure if that’s normal adolescent stuff or a product of these strange times. 

Braun said she’s been spending a lot of time keeping him on task and off distractions like YouTube and video games. 

And yet, the technology for some classes has its own frustrations. For example, she said one of his first assignments was to make a digital poster to introduce himself. But just getting photos into the school’s system was a significant hurdle. 

“So we finally did it, but it took a lot of both of our time and effort just to get that kind of simple assignment done because of the technical challenges,” Braun said. 

School officials hope to gradually resume in-person classes when public health conditions improve. 

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