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Schools are wrestling with how to hold classes in the middle of the pandemic. In Alaska, one school district has more than 11,000 students in classrooms. Officials say that in the months since school began, it's going surprisingly well. Tegan Hanlon with Alaska Public Media reports on the unusual beginning of in-person instruction.
KELLY MROZIK: Does this picture show one plus one?
TEGAN HANLON, BYLINE: First-grade teacher Kelly Mrozik is in the middle of a math lesson at Dena'ina Elementary School near the city of Wasilla, about an hour north of Anchorage.
MROZIK: Would we use this sign, this sign or this sign if we want to add them together?
HANLON: A student, Wayne, sitting on the carpet in front of her points to the plus sign.
MROZIK: Very good. Elbows, Wayne. Very nice.
HANLON: Mrozik and Wayne bump elbows to celebrate the correct answer.
MROZIK: Sometimes we even do, like, a shoe bump or we do a toe tap or a happy dance.
HANLON: But high-fives are banned. There is a lot of hand sanitizer, and masks are required for all employees and students in grades three and above. The Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District - or Mat-Su for short - is Alaska's largest district to bring students back to classrooms.
RANDY TRANI: You know, when those kids were coming back that first week, I remember saying, well, here goes the big experiment.
HANLON: District Superintendent Randy Trani is now among a chorus of Mat-Su adults and students who say school is going better than they thought it would. Yes, Trani says, there have been students who tested positive for the coronavirus. He says the district has a system to quickly identify possible contacts, test them and quarantine them.
TRANI: The thing that we're most pleased with is that so far we haven't had any transmission within the school. So the cases have come from outside of the school, and we think that our mitigation strategies within the school have enabled us to stop it.
HANLON: Mat-Su has a lot going for it. The region has a lower rate of coronavirus compared to some other parts of the country, and it's vast. Its schools span an area larger than the state of West Virginia. Also, about one-third of the district's 18,000 students are learning online. That leaves fewer kids in classrooms. One student back in school is 11-year-old Iselin Swalling, who'd rather be in class than at home.
ISELIN: When you're, like, in person, you know, if there's something you don't get, your teacher's there to kind of help you understand it. Plus, when you're at home, you don't really want to, like, sit up straight in a chair; you just kind of want to sit in your PJs on your bed.
HANLON: Iselin is at lunch at Dena'ina Elementary. She and a friend sit side by side with their masks on the table. That's allowed at lunch. But they can't sit facing each other. Iselin says wearing a mask in class is the biggest difference about school this year.
ISELIN: Sometimes if you do, like, gym or something, your mask does get a little sweaty. But other than that - hasn't been too weird.
HANLON: Her mom, Bridget Swalling, is a first-grade teacher at Dena'ina, and she had more reservations about returning to the classroom.
BRIDGET SWALLING: I wouldn't say that I felt afraid necessarily, but I did have some nerves about what this would look like and what - you know, what kind of risk am I putting myself in or am I putting my students in by coming back to school?
HANLON: Swalling has 22 students in her classroom and three online. The online students get to know their classmates in morning meetings by Zoom. They can also come to school for activities like recess. And while Swalling is quick to praise the benefits of in-person school, she's still anxious.
SWALLING: Every sniffle, every cough kind of puts me on high alert.
HANLON: The school district says it can't regularly test all students and staff for the coronavirus, so it's leaning on parents and teachers to make sure students who seem even a little sick stay home.
For NPR News, I'm Tegan Hanlon in Wasilla, Alaska.
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