This year has been a major challenge for educators as they struggle to teach children in the middle of a pandemic. Last spring, most schools shut their doors and moved to remote learning after COVID-19 arrived in the state. After completing the school year learning alone at home, students in Emmonak seem to have a new appreciation of school.
It was six months after they left when students in Emmonak walked back into their school, and even then they were only there for four-day weeks with half-days spent in a classroom. The rest of the schoolday was spent completing their work at home using Chromebooks. For everyone involved, teachers, kids and parents, this school year has meant learning new technology, and communicating through phones and email with less time face-to-face between students and teachers.
Principal Shawn Jenson said, “Our district has calculated that the face-to-face instruction time is going to be about 40% compared to what we’d have in a normal year.”
In no way is this ideal, but Jenson said that everyone is doing the best they can. Fridays are set aside to work with parents to help them help their kids learn, and to troubleshoot technology issues and lessons. Jenson, who has been at the Emmonak school for four years, noticed something different this year. As of October, not a single student had been in detention.
“Honestly, we haven’t had any discipline incidents this year. I don’t know if that is due to low numbers, you know, the short time they attend every day. So far this year we haven’t had any, which has never happened in the other years I’ve worked here,” said Jenson.
Not only that, but attendance at school was higher than he had ever seen. Kids were showing up on time and ready to be at school.
“I think school’s a little more meaningful for them, honestly”, said Jenson. “They’re obviously the same kids. I think it became more valuable to them when they couldn’t have it rather than something they took for granted, I think. I think there’s a sense of urgency just because the day is short, and kind of gained a little more appreciation for school when they didn’t have it. It might just be a honeymoon period too. We’ll see. Knock on wood, I guess," he said, laughing.
At the end of September, Emmonak, which serves as a hub community for several other villages, had a positive case of COVID-19. The tribe put the village into lockdown, and the school shut its doors and went to remote learning, sending food and Chromebooks home to the students. Jenson said that during that first day of the lockdown, information surfaced indicating that the case was travel-related.
“The person came from Anchorage to Bethel, tested in Bethel, came to Emmonak, immediately went home where they live alone. And they’d been quarantined ever since they got here,”Jenson said.
That meant there was very low risk of community spread, so the tribe and the Lower Yukon School District decided to reopen the school. Most of the students returned to the Emmonak school just one day after they left. Jensen said that he’s keeping his fingers crossed that the new sense of value that students seem to have for school continues.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said the Emmonak school was in the Lower Kuskokwim School District. That is incorrect. It is in the Lower Yukon School District.