John Hagen
Left to right: Haines School staff Sean Asquith, Janae Larson, Lynzee Swinton and Denise Sherman load student’ gear, instruments and class work for the upcoming month of distance learning.

Students, parents and teachers are adjusting to distance learning this week as the district works to implement a long-term plan for educating children from home. While many districts across the state waited another week to begin classes, Haines started this week.

“We’re building the plane as we’re flying it,” Haines School technology coordinator and teacher Sam McPhetres said this week.

McPhetres spent last week setting up and distributing 47 iPads for students in Kindergarten through second grade. The district also sent about 120 laptops home to students.

The influx in technology to homes overloaded broadband capacity for part of the day Monday for some families, whose children are using two different online platforms: Google Classroom (grades 5-12) or Tes (grades K-4). Teachers are uploading videos and other resources for students who downloaded them Monday.

“You can imagine that the community network is somewhat bogged down from that,” McPhetres said. “If you have multiple kids watching different YouTube videos you can imagine your (bandwidth) is pretty much saturated.”

Krystal Lloyd has five children in the school system. She called Monday’s experience “random chaos” but that things became smoother later in the day.

“My fifth graders are on Google Classroom. That thing is running smoothly,” Lloyd said Tuesday. “(My second through fourth graders) are in Bloomz (and Tes) and that is just chaos in itself. It hasn’t been functioning very well. You have to have different apps, different downloads, different processes. With this Google Classroom they’ve done two full days of school already.”

The school dialed back K-4 classroom learning on Tuesday and Thursday to allow teachers and parents to play catch up.

“We spent about 90 minutes trying to work (Tes) out yesterday morning through iPads and emails and finally got it dialed in,” Carlos Jimenez said. “Today we got a notification that because of connectivity issues, it wasn’t working. He’s gleefully spending today working on art projects,” Jimenez said of his second-grader Asher.

Some staff were unable to join an online meeting Monday evening, when internet use peaked across the community.

Principal Rene Martin said in an effort to address bandwidth issues they are asking teachers to limit and shorten videos, keep teleconferences limited to audio and encouraging breaks to get students and families outside.

Starting last week and culminating Monday evening, Alaska Power & Telephone has worked to provide dozens of families without internet access free service in an effort to enable distance learning. Local AP&T technician Jesse Mcgraw handed boxes in through windows with a pole to abide with social distancing rules, McPhetres said.

“We had roughly twenty homes that didn’t have internet,” McPhetres said. “AP&T was able to provide internet to all except two homes and that was because of the physical location of their properties. Suddenly homes that never had internet have internet. That’s amazing.”

The company also installed service at the Mosquito Lake Community Center where upper valley students can access course materials from the parking lot.

AP&T has also waived overage fees and increased bandwidth for families with students and teachers.

“Many teachers within our service area, if they didn’t have service, we would get service to them,” AP&T director of internet Bryant Smith said of their decision. “If they already had service, we wanted to make sure the service they were getting was adequate enough to teach, which required a little bit faster internet. For students that didn’t have internet we would try to reach them with our access.”

First-grade teacher and parent Sophia Armstrong said while the last 10 days of organizing and implementing distance learning has been difficult, she praised her coworkers and the district administration for solving problems on the fly.

“Trying to put in a full workday while having two children at home makes it very hard to concentrate.  I feel for all the parents out there trying to help their children while still doing their own work in a different environment,” Armstrong said. “This is something new, and we all need to let go of as much stress and pressure as we can, and just do the small amount we can each day,” Armstrong said. “Nothing will be perfect but we can try to enjoy this extra time with our kids and focus on keeping ourselves healthy and sane.”

Last week selected school staff collected students’ belongings out of their lockers into trash bags to send home. They also collected all the musical instruments and other classroom materials students would need for the coming weeks.

School is closed through April, by state mandate.