Parents are becoming increasingly distressed about their children’s education during the pandemic. Several called in to the Lower Kuskokwim School District board meeting on Jan. 27, pleading for the district to reopen schools to students.
It has become clear just how poorly students are responding to remote learning. LKSD released a report of students’ grades during the first semester, which can only be described as dismal.
“I was shocked, during the school reports, about the high numbers of students that are not engaging at all in school,” said Megan Newport, parent of a student at Ayaprun Elitnaurvik. She was one of four Bethel parents who called into LKSD's board meeting, urging the district to reopen schools. Two parents called in cautioning against a rush to do so.
Reports show Bethel high schoolers failed 59% of their first semester classes. In 36% to 52% of kindergarten through 8th grade classes, students didn’t even turn in enough work to receive a grade. That’s what Newport meant by “not engaging.” Grades in villages looked a little better than in Bethel, but the rate of failed classes was still alarming.
“Even the most cursory review of the current data on attendance, no basis grading, and student failure rates provides overwhelming proof that LKSD is currently in the midst of an unprecedented educational crisis,” Newport said.
LKSD has acknowledged the problem and is trying to fix it. Assistant Superintendent Ed Pekar said that the district is forming a committee of principals, teachers, and students, and has hired consultants and researchers, all tasked with identifying how to re-engage students who have tuned out of school during the pandemic.
Along with that measure, Superintendent Kimberly Hankins hopes that the “intranet,” which functions like a limited internet, will improve remote learning. But now, more than halfway through the school year, many teachers and students are still struggling to connect to and learn how to use the intranet. Norman Ayagalria, a teacher in Napakiak, said that given the problems with the intranet, he’d rather not use it at all.
“In Napakiak and some of the villages, intranet has not been working,” Ayagalria said. “I'm not going to be spending some time on something that is not consistently working. I’d rather have iPads and paper and pencil.”
Several parents at the Jan. 27 board meeting in favor of reopening schools also brought up an article that researchers for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on Jan. 26. Researchers wrote that it would be safe to re-open schools as long as precautions are taken because “there has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.”
But according to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation Chief of Staff Dr. Ellen Hodges, schools have been a place where the virus spreads, at least in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.
“In our region, schools in more than one community have been a significant source of seeding an entire village with cases, causing outbreaks of hundreds of cases and a handful of deaths associated with those cases,” Hodges said.
The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta also consistently has one of the highest COVID-19 case rates in the nation. Therefore, YKHC has recommended that schools should not resume in-person classes until three conditions are met: first, that all cases in a community can be linked to travel; second, that YKHC is announcing fewer than 25 new COVID-19 cases a week; and third, that less than 3% of coronavirus tests are coming back positive. The region is a long way away from hitting those numbers. Over the last week, YKHC announced 242 new cases, and around 12% to 15% of tests have been coming back positive.
To get to the point where schools can reopen, Hodges said that as many people as possible need to get vaccinated.
“We can't vaccinate our children, so we have to surround them in a cocoon of people who have been vaccinated,” Hodges said.
Right now, 16 is the minimum age for which the vaccines are approved. They are available to anyone in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta over that age. As of Jan. 27, Hodges said that YKHC had vaccinated 5,793 people, more than 20% of the region’s population, and that 1,842 people had received both doses.
Within a few months, every eligible person in the region who wants the vaccine will likely have had the opportunity to receive the two required doses. At that point, Bethel parent and LKSD social worker Ryan Wheeler said that the schools should not stay closed.
“If people have chosen not to be vaccinated, they're accepting the risk that comes with living in a time where COVID is a threat to them and their physical health,” Wheeler said.
The school board did not take any action on the issue of when to resume in-person classes. Board member Hugh Dyment, who works at the Bethel jail where there has been a huge COVID-19 outbreak, said that it was not yet time.
“If you asked me to vote on opening Bethel schools right now, I'd say no,” Dyment said. “Because I'm familiar with what's happening medically, and I know how quickly something can spread. I've seen it happen.”
LKSD has a work session scheduled for Feb. 8, when board members will further discuss when schools will reopen. Whenever that time turns out to be, sports practices will come back too. Board members voted to allow sports practices as soon as students are allowed back into classrooms. However, local advisory school boards could choose to override that decision and not allow sports.