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School Begins In Napakiak Amid Pandemic And An Encroaching Riverbank

School is back in session, but not back to normal. Students in Napakiak returned to the classroom on Aug. 11. It was the first full day of in-person instruction in over a year. 


Students and teachers all wore masks, and desks were spaced 3 feet apart. After so much time away from school, some students were feeling a little uncomfortable. Alana Spencer, a returning teacher who knew almost all of her students, had trouble getting more than a word out of them at first.

“How was your summer girls?” Spencer asked some students.

“Good,” a student replied. 

“Good,” said another student.

But over the course of the day, everyone warmed up. Nickisha Jenkins, an eighth grader in Ms. Spencer’s class, said that her teacher just kept prodding students with questions until they opened up.

“After being shy and nervous, they started talking and got used to it,” Jenkins said.

By lunchtime, students were joking and laughing while they competed in math bingo.

“Oh! Bingo! Ms. Spencer I got a bingo,” a student said.

“I got a bingo first,” another student said.

“There isn’t even a straight row completely filled,” Spencer said.

The benefits of in-person learning were clear. While teacher Evan McGucken’s third and fourth grade class filled out a worksheet, most students got stuck. McGucken walked around to each student’s desk, helping them read out the problems, making suggestions, or just offering reassurance.

“It’s alright if we forget some stuff,” McGucken said.

“I forgot everything,” a student replied.

“That’s all right too,” McGucken said. “We’ll learn it all again.”

For the first time in over a year, students ate lunch in the cafeteria. Afterwards, the high schoolers got to play basketball and volleyball during P.E. Both activities had been on hold last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fifteen-year-old Billiana Andrew said that this school year was already much better than the last one, when students were stuck at home learning remotely for most of the year.

“Last year was horrible. We didn't learn anything much. We didn't come in the gym, like now, this year. And we have new teachers that are teaching us,” Andrew said.

After gym, Andrew and the other high schoolers returned to their classroom. It had been converted from an old preschool building to a high school classroom this summer. The old high school classrooms, located inside the main school building, are empty. The pandemic is not the only challenge the Napakiak school is facing.

Less than 70 feet from the building, the Kuskokwim River laps at the riverbank. The water is expected to reach the school within a year. More classrooms will vacate in the coming months.

The school will work to continue holding in-person classes as the number of COVID-19 cases grow and the river creeps closer.

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