Isolated at home, we connected in new ways

We all did it. Over the last year when nothing was the same, we zoomed everywhere to do so many things, celebrations and staff meetings, conferences and convenings. Technology provided a safe workaround to social isolation — and something better too. We had a collective epiphany about the accessibility of virtual space. Without the limitations of geography and physical rooms, doors open to many more people.

Many organizations — indeed, many people — weren’t equipped for an online world. Early in the pandemic, we recognized that organizations would need new technology. We invested almost $230,000 to help more than 20 organizations buy laptops, iPads and digital platforms for online work, school and gatherings.

With the challenges came rewards beyond expectation. Sprout Family Services, a Homer-based nonprofit that promotes healthy development of children, used a small grant to buy new hardware and move into a cloud-based record system. From home offices, staff coached families. One day, they watched over Zoom as a baby with special needs crawled for the first time. “We often witness ‘firsts’ in home visits, but this was a virtual-visit first,” said Jillian Lush, who until recently was Sprout executive director.

At three Anchorage elementary schools, Camp Fire Alaska helped children with extra challenges succeed in virtual school. Maybe their parents didn’t speak English or couldn’t work from home. Some lacked internet. Some were experiencing homelessness. Camp Fire partnered with the Anchorage School District to create in-school Learning Pods. The children went to virtual class right at school with academic, technical, social and emotional support. Even when physical school reopened, Camp Fire staff stayed in the schools.

Then there’s the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program, which in non-pandemic times offers a variety of in-person programs to support STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — learning for kindergarteners through graduate students.

A middle school student from Palmer Jr. Middle School in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District builds a computer with remote instruction in March 2021. (Photo courtesy of teacher Stacy Roberts).

In a fast pivot to virtual, program staff mailed hands-on activity kits to participating middle school students in the STEM Connect component. Students made Jell-O molds to study the human brain, learned to code and designed energy efficiency projects. Staff selected 10 middle school students in a drawing to each build a desktop computer. ANSEP mailed them the components and taught them how over Zoom, something ANSEP also did with partnering school districts. On living room floors and kitchen tables, each student created a working computer. The machines are theirs to keep if they complete Algebra 1 before high school.

ANSEP’s Acceleration Academy, in which high schoolers earn college credits, also went virtual in 2020 — and attracted more students than ever before, nearly 100 from Nome to Bethel to Sitka for its intensive summer program., Students gathered for virtual study sessions in the full-time school year program, communicated through the social networking app Slack, participated in clubs and stayed connected by playing games online.

The virtual learning will continue, ANSEP says. Students in small villages will get the same opportunity for college courses as urban kids.

“Previously, we had stayed away from distance delivery because a big part of what we do is collaboration and teamwork,” said Michael Ulroan, senior director of the Acceleration Academy. Ulroan, from the Southwestern Alaska village of Chevak, years ago was supported by ANSEP when he earned his civil engineering degree from the University of Alaska Anchorage. “Now that we know we can do that virtually, it’s going to open the door for students to earn college credits,” he said. “And they don’t have to be in Anchorage or the Mat-Su.”