Last week, the Lower Kuskokwim School District announced that students in Bethel would start the school year remotely because of the high number of COVID-19 cases in the city. That was just the start. Active cases of COVID-19 are now being seen in a number of villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, forcing schools to close.
The Kuspuk School District, located along the upper Kuskokwim River, announced that all schools will stay closed from Aug. 24 until Sep. 7. In a press release, Superintendent James Anderson wrote that the decision was made on the recommendation of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation due to a possible COVID-19 case in Crooked Creek and in Aniak. He said that parents would receive further information from the individual schools regarding plans for education.
At least five other villages in the Y-K Delta have COVID-19 cases threatening school closures. The Yupiit School District, located along the middle Kuskokwim River, includes schools in Akiak, Akiachak, and Tuluksak. Two of those schools opened to students Aug. 12, but Tuluksak delayed opening because someone in the village tested positive for COVID-19. Superintendent Cassandra Bennett said that’s what the district’s strategy requires.
“All three tribes are in agreement that if anyone in the village gets it, we shut down,” Bennett said.
Further down the Kuskokwim, Nunapitchuk is in lockdown, and LKSD Superintendent Kimberly Hankins said that classes will start remotely in that village. In St. Mary’s, on the Yukon River, an active COVID-19 case already has students also learning from home, according to City Administrator Walton Smith.
Schools in the Lower Yukon School District are scheduled to open Sep. 8, but cases of COVID-19 in Emmonak and Nunam Iqua are threatening to upset those plans. Superintendent Gene Stone is hoping that the cases recover before then.
“We’re still maintaining a yellow designation for that,” Stone said.
“Yellow” status, or “medium risk,” is the goal. It allows a mix of in-classroom learning and remote education. But the rules are hazy on what it would take to return to medium risk after an active COVID-19 case in a village. In Tuluksak, where that happened, Superintendent Bennett said that they are starting off by testing everyone in the community and monitoring peoples’ symptoms. And then, she said that the ultimate decision to reopen would be left to health professionals.
“We follow the leadership of YKHC,” Bennett said.
All the districts in the region have been following the recommendations from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation to some degree. LKSD, along with LYSD and the Kuspuk, Yupiit, and Kashunamiut school districts are all requiring their teachers to get tested and to quarantine for 14 days. Plus, they’re all implementing plans to limit students’ interactions to smaller groups. St. Mary’s School District did not respond to requests for comment.
The Lower Yukon School District is the only district KYUK talked with that is not mandating face masks. Instead, Superintendent Stone said that teachers are required to wear face shields, and students are encouraged to wear masks.
“Ensuring that kids are comfortable enough to learn, and given where we are and within our sites, the pretty low levels of activity in terms of active cases,” Stone said.
The Lower Yukon and Yupiit school districts have eliminated sports activities entirely to start the year. Kashunamiut and Kuspuk will only have cross country practice, since it’s outdoors. The outlier is LKSD, which is participating in some indoor sports with inter-village travel and competition. Superintendent Hankins said that the district is requiring 10 feet of distance between athletes.
“There's plans in place in the practice protocols for cleaning for participants, screening for taking care of the facility and the equipment, for face coverings, for hygiene, etc.,” Hankins said.
The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation says that the precautions school districts are taking are well and good, but CEO and President Dan Winkelman said that there are two glaring gaps in some of their plans with testing and tracking.
“Where you're testing your staff with frequency, and you're also testing your students with frequency,” Winkelman said. “And then you're also tracking the whereabouts of everyone in that school. And it's not just the whereabouts, where they are during the day, but where they go on the weekends. And without that, there's certain risk. Definitely risk.”
Winkelman acknowledged that doing what he described would take a lot of work, but he said that most village health clinics have some testing capability, and that his organization would offer help. Superintendent Hankins said that LKSD has begun communicating with YKHC about testing its teachers periodically throughout the year. As for tracking everyone’s locations at all times, she said that schools would try their best.
“When our staff is out, that's easy to know, and sort of easy to track,” Hankins said. “What's not as easy is if a student has, or a family takes a trip and they don't communicate that with the school. We really need cooperation and partnership on that.”
The plans that districts create to keep their classrooms safe will either be of paramount importance, or they will be irrelevant if kids can’t attend class in-person. As of now, students in at least a dozen communities in the Y-K Delta are starting school from home.