This July 2019 photo shows some of over 2,000 backpacks that were given away to students throughout Southeast Alaska through Tlingit and Haida’s Temporary Assistance For Needy Families Department. This year in order to help accommodate virtual learning, when backpacks are distributed, they will come with Google Chromebooks. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File)

This July 2019 photo shows some of over 2,000 backpacks that were given away to students throughout Southeast Alaska through Tlingit and Haida’s Temporary Assistance For Needy Families Department. This year in order to help accommodate virtual learning, when backpacks are distributed, they will come with Google Chromebooks. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File)

Back to school backpack program goes high tech

The program has adapted to distanced learning as coronavirus shows no signs of slowing.

Every year, the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska distributes backpacks with school supplies to Alaska Native and American Indian students in Southeast Alaska.

But as the coronavirus continues to sweep the country virtually unimpeded, Tlingit and Haida’s Temporary Assistance For Needy Families Department, which administers the program, is handling things a little differently.

“For many many years, Tlingit and Haida has held Back to School Backpacks and school supply events to really encourage the importance of school and education,” said Jesse Parr, manager of the TANF Department, in a phone interview. “This is a completely different year with the world we’re living in. It’s definitely challenging. With that in mind, to try to help families out, we’ve got some of the CARES Act funding to get Chromebooks.”

Tlingit and Haida will distribute 2,330 Chromebooks to 21 communities across Southeast Alaska, beginning at the end of July. The deadline for applications is Friday, July 17.

“We are doing Chromebooks and backpacks. Traditionally, we did backpacks from all age categories from Head Start to 12th grade,” said program manager Julie Chapman in a phone interview. “After the students had to distance learn beginning in March-April, we decided that we would supply Chromebooks. We had to run it through the management and ultimately it was approved by the president (and executive management) of Tlingit and Haida.”

State reports nearly 50 new coronavirus cases

The total for the Chromebooks came in at just under $700,000, said Parr. The computers themselves have been ordered and are on their way, Chapman said. The intent is to get the hardware mated up with backpacks and distributed to the applicants.

“We are waiting and hoping we get these before the end of July which is when we are going to distribute these,” Chapman said. “Normally, we distribute in one day but because of COVID we’re doing it over a whole week.”

In Juneau in 2018, there were 1,017 applicants, said Parr. In 2019, there were 1,046. The other 20 communities around the Southeast account for the remaining 1,000 or so. Sitka, Metlakatla and Ketchikan are mostly not included under the program, Parr said, as they have local organizations that handle school supply programs.

“I’ve been with the program for 10 years. It was in place when I joined the department in 2010,” Chapman said. “Normally it takes all summer to get this ordered and organized. It’s a labor of love all summer long.”

The Back to School Backpack Program began in 2004, Chapman said. Any Alaska Native or American Indian child in the service area is eligible.

“Head start up until 12th grade, whether they’re in public school or home-schooled. As long as they’re enrolled,” Chapman said. “The parent or legal guardian can apply for them.”

• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757.621.1197 or

Want to apply?

Check out Tlingit and Haida’s Facebook for more information and for the application link. The Juneau community contact phone number is 463-7158. The email is

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