A student heads to the main entrance of Thunder Mountain High School to start the first day of school. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

A student heads to the main entrance of Thunder Mountain High School to start the first day of school. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

New school year starts ‘a lot closer to normal’

Classes are back in session and with it comes a few new changes, according to school officials

The ringing of school bells marked the first day of the 2022 school year across Juneau for students Tuesday morning. Students could be seen hopping off their buses, walking with their friends and smiling for pictures as their excited parents dropped them off.

A parent smiles while taking a photo of student as they stand outside of Thunder Mountain High School just before the start of school on Tuesday morning. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

A parent smiles while taking a photo of student as they stand outside of Thunder Mountain High School just before the start of school on Tuesday morning. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

“We’re so excited to get this year started,” said Juneau School District Superintendent Bridget Weiss. “This is the first start of a school year where things are a lot closer to normal than what they’ve been yet, and we’re really transitioning to what the new normal looks like.”

Weiss said this school year comes with a few changes and updates, but said many of them are steps to bring the schools back to something similar to “normal” after multiple school years truncated and shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic. Though first through 12th grades started on Tuesday morning, Juneau’s kindergarten class has a later start date is set for Friday, Aug. 19, followed by a pre-K student start date on Tuesday, Aug. 23.

Weiss said some of the changes happening in the district include the official name change from what is now formerly Riverbend Elementary School to be called Kax̲dig̲oowu Héen Elementary, a Tlingit name that translates as “Going Back to Clear Water.” The school also underwent a few changes like a roof replacement and interior repairs following damage due to flooding in January 2022.

Students entered Kax̲dig̲oowu Héen Elementary, formerly Riverbend Elementary School, to mark the first day of the 2022 academic school year. The decision to change the K-5 school’s name was made in mid June by the Juneau School Board after the Riverbend leadership requested a Tlingit name for the school from the A’ak’w Kwáan. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Students entered Kax̲dig̲oowu Héen Elementary, formerly Riverbend Elementary School, to mark the first day of the 2022 academic school year. The decision to change the K-5 school’s name was made in mid June by the Juneau School Board after the Riverbend leadership requested a Tlingit name for the school from the A’ak’w Kwáan. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Weiss said another big change to note is the districtwide change to revert back to a paid lunch program after a few years where free lunches were able to be provided to all students throughout the course of the pandemic via funding from federal grants, which have now since waned.

“Funding had been available all this time until now, and it’s not available anymore. But, through partnerships throughout the community, we are able to provide free breakfast, but not lunch,” said the School District’s chief of staff Kristen Bartlett.

Weiss said each school lunch will cost $4.50 per student and the option to apply for the free and reduced lunch program is still available for all families, and said the free breakfast program will continue to remain in place thanks to funding from local partnerships.

“Students don’t have to be qualified to get it, and it’s a really exciting thing to offer,” she said. “We know having a full tummy in the morning is just really important as to how students will be able to engage with their learning.”

[No mandatory masks or COVID-19 tests for new school year]

Bartlett said the school board made the call to continue with its previous decision to keep masks optional for students and staff of all schools and all grades, along with making quarantining not a requirement for students who are potentially exposed to COVID-19. However, she said the school still emphasizes healthy guidelines and preventative measures will still be in places such as free at-home testing and masks available for all students and staff.

“Masks will be available and everyone is welcome to choose to wear one, but it’s not required,” she said. “People who are exposed should wear a mask, but they are not required to stay at home, which will make a big difference.”

She said the continuation of the option mask requirement is a sign that things are starting to revert back to “normal” and said she is excited to see how this school year goes.

“I am excited that this is going to be a very different start that we’ve had for the last couple of years and now we have high levels of vaccines and infection-induced immunity and ways to mitigate illness in our schools,” she said.

Both Weiss and Bartlett said people can expect a few delays and changes at the start of the year as the schools learn more about staffing needs and resolve any issues that might arise early on. They said the district is still trying to fill a “handful” of positions that remain unfilled across Juneau schools as well.

“There are lots of employment opportunities right now and there are staffing shortages all over the place and we are no different,” Bartlett said. “We are definitely hiring every day but we still do have lots of openings with a wide variety of options to choose from.”

Weiss added: “We still have a lot of open staffing positions, but we are sitting pretty good compared to many other districts in the state, but we are still missing quite a few in certain spots.”

• Contact reporter Clarise Larson at clarise.larson@juneauempire.com or at (651)-528-1807. Follow her on Twitter @clariselarson

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