Two school districts in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta are reopening schools in some of their communities. Students in several villages in the Kuspuk School District are back in class, and the Lower Yukon School District is allowing any communities that have not had COVID-19 cases for the past two weeks to reopen.
Erica Kameroff is the mayor and a tribal council member in Aniak, which is served by the Kuspuk School District. She said that both the city and tribe in Aniak passed resolutions supporting the return of in-person school.
“With our numbers here and not having any [cases], and everybody being as COVID safe as they have been, we felt that it was okay for the school to open up as long as they were keeping with their COVID measures,” Kameroff said.
Nobody in Aniak has tested positive for COVID-19 since Jan. 4. Since the pandemic began, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation has announced a total of 20 cases in Aniak, and no community spread has been detected there. Kuspuk School Board President Harvey Hoffman said that the district is allowing villages upriver to open schools as well, depending on whether the community has any cases of COVID-19.
On the Yukon River, LYSD Superintendent Gene Stone said that the school board took action on Feb. 5 allowing some schools to reopen. Stone said that if a community has had zero cases of COVID-19 for 14 days, they can return to in-person learning. Only two out of the 10 villages within the Lower Yukon School District fit that criteria: Scammon Bay and Russian Mission. Stone said that principals there would make sure that the communities supported the moves, and he said that the district would provide alternative options as well.
“Some families may not be comfortable with their kids going back and, similar to what we did in the fall, we allowed for remote learning for those families,” Stone said.
YKHC has recommended that schools remain closed until COVID-19 case rates in the Y-K Delta decline, along with additional criteria. Stone and Hoffman both said that their districts respect YKHC’s recommendations and intend to follow most of them; neither district is participating in sports for now. However, Stone said that the COVID-19 situation differs dramatically across communities in the region.
“There should be some kind of criteria defined other than being fixed to what the regional numbers are,” Stone said.
YKHC has said on many occasions that communities in the Y-K Delta are too interconnected, and that cases in one village can quickly spread to a nearby community. But Aniak mayor Erica Kameroff said that statement is more applicable to villages nearby Bethel.
“Where villages are a lot closer together and there's a lot more intervillage mingling. Aniak is 150 miles away from Bethel,” Kameroff said.
Sleetmute, which is part of the Kuspuk School District and located hundreds of miles upriver from Bethel, has also reopened. YKHC has announced a total of zero COVID-19 cases in Sleetmute since the pandemic began. Tribal Administrator Frank Egnaty said that in addition to how far away it is from other communities, there’s another reason for the lack of COVID-19 cases there.
“We have a small community, so we pretty much know everybody. There's like only, like, 86 people here,” Egnaty said.
He said that with a small population, the village can more easily track everyone who comes and goes and make sure that they’re following the COVID-19 guidelines.
The situation farther down the Kuskokwim River is much different. In all three villages in the Yupiit School District, there have been hundreds of COVID-19 cases and widespread community transmission of the virus. The situation is similar in many communities in the Lower Kuskokwim School District as well. Both LKSD and the Yupiit School District have said that they intend to follow YKHC’s recommendations to keep schools closed until health conditions improve.