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Canceled flights delay LKSD teachers from returning to Y-K Delta

An Alaska Airlines plane at Juneau International Airport on March 3, 2003.
Creative Commons photo by Gillfoto
Canceled flights because of the omicron variant delay LKSD teachers from returning to the Y-K Delta

The Lower Kuskokwim School District is starting to see the effects of the omicron variant of COVID-19. As LKSD staff returned to the region from their holiday break, a significant number faced travel delays and canceled flights.

Ayaprun Elitnaurvik elementary in Bethel had intended to return to school Jan. 11, but staffing shortages delayed that return until Jan. 12.

LKSD Superintendent Kimberly Hankins wrote in an email on Jan. 10 that about 25 staff had yet to return to the Y-K Delta because their flights were canceled or delayed. She said that several schools in the district are impacted by canceled flights, but only Ayaprun delayed their start.

Major airlines across the country have been canceling flights in recent weeks because their staff have become infected with the more contagious omicron variant and are unable to show up to work.

On top of that, extreme weather conditions in the Y-K Delta have stranded hundreds of passengers in Bethel, sometimes for weeks. Hankins said that those stranded passengers have included LKSD teachers that are trying to get to the villages where they work.

“We had some folks stuck here trying to get back. So it's kind of a multiple leg approach. It's getting to Bethel, and then making sure the weather cooperates to get out,” Hankins said.

She said that at this point, the district's staff shortages are primarily travel-related, not because they are becoming infected with COVID-19. However, some schools around the country, including in Alaska, are going remote because many of their staff have become infected with the omicron variant. Hankins said that she’s hoping that’s not a precursor to what’s to come in the Y-K Delta.

“I don't think we look forward to going back to remote. But if a situation presented itself where that was the best solution, we would certainly look at it,” Hankins said.

Last semester, a handful of LKSD schools cycled in and out of remote status because of COVID-19 outbreaks in their communities. If the more contagious omicron variant causes LKSD teachers to become infected at high rates, Hankins said that the district would try to have other staff fill in as substitute teachers before going remote as a last resort.

As LKSD staff return from holiday break, Hankins said that they will be following their community’s guidelines for quarantining.

“Some communities have implemented a required quarantine period for all returning travelers regardless of vaccination status. Some are requiring a quarantine period for unvaccinated travelers only,” Hankins said.

As of November 2021, about 83% of LKSD’s certified teachers were vaccinated. About 50% of the remaining staff was. Hankins said that those were the latest numbers. The district has not issued a vaccine mandate.

“We do strongly recommend vaccination, but at this time we're not mandating it,” Hankins said.

The CDC and YKHC recently issued new guidance for shorter isolation and quarantine periods. This could mean students and staff can return to school sooner after an infection or exposure to COVID-19. Hankins said the district is reviewing the new guidance and will be updating its policies sometime this week.

Greg Kim is a news reporter for KYUK covering environment, health, education, public safety, culture and subsistence. He's covered everything from Newtok's relocation due to climate change-fueled erosion to the Bethel chicken massacre of 2020.
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