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Bethel schools nearly close due to surge in COVID-19 cases

Students wearing masks at Bethel Regional High School.
Katie Basile
Students wearing masks at Bethel Regional High School.

The largest surge in COVID-19 cases the Y-K Delta has ever experienced is hitting school staff and students. Bethel school principals reported that they almost shut down their schools at points in January 2022. But so far, the Lower Kuskokwim School District (LKSD) has been able to keep classes in session despite staff shortages.

At the LKSD board meeting on Jan. 17, two Bethel principals informed the board of near school closures because of a high number of COVID-19 cases in their schools.

“Because of the numbers of staff that have been impacted by COVID, we have had to consider whether or not we could handle school safely,” said Ayaprun Elitnaurvik Principal Joshua Gill.

“Last week, I had 50 students on quarantine. At least one day last week, I had to make sure I had enough in attendance for the day to count,” said Bethel Regional High School Principal Alicia Miner.

LKSD Superintendent Kimberly Hankins said that the number of students and staff out of school because of COVID-19 have shot up in January, since the more infectious omicron variant of COVID-19 began spreading in the region. Hankins herself was infected with COVID-19 two weeks ago.

“My biggest takeaway from the whole experience is just the importance of staying home when you have symptoms,” Hankins said. “I was symptomatic and tested negative for over a full day before I tested positive for COVID.”

Hankins was fully vaccinated before being infected, and she says that she is feeling better now. She returned to work on Jan. 24 after isolating.

Hankins said that in the last two weeks, about 60 other LKSD staff have been out of school quarantining or isolating. A good chunk of students are home as well; over 8% of all students across the district were isolating or quarantining in the last week. Cases in Bethel have been disproportionately high.

LKSD recently shortened the amount of time that staff have to isolate after being infected with COVID-19. Staff can end isolation after five days if they receive a negative test. Infected students are required to isolate 10 full days because they cannot avoid taking their masks off while eating lunch with other students. LKSD also shortened its quarantine period to five days for vaccinated and boosted students and staff.

Hankins said that some schools in the district are operating remotely due to community-wide lockdowns, but none are closed due to staff shortages. She said that so far, the district has been able to fill the positions when teachers get sick.

“We look to substitute teachers, if we have them available. We also look to other staff to help fill in. it might mean that we're pulling a classroom aide to serve in the classroom the entire day,” Hankins said.

In the midst of the spike in COVID-19 cases across the school district and the region, the LKSD school board relaxed several COVID-19 policies for student athletes. Opposing teams are now required to test just once, within 24 hours of when they are scheduled to fly into an LKSD community. The district is also forming a committee to decide if and when students can visit restaurants and other public places while traveling for sports and extracurriculars. The board also asked the Bethel City Council if student athletes could play sports without wearing masks, but the city council voted that down.

Greg Kim was a news reporter for KYUK from 2019-2022.
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