At the recommendation of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation, all of the school districts in the Y-K Delta, save one, are suspending in-person classes until at least January 2021.
Kuspuk School District, which serves communities along the upper Kuskokwim River, is still holding in-person classes in several communities where residents have tested positive for COVID-19. At least one teacher in the Kuspuk School District believes that the district is making a mistake by holding in-person classes. The teacher has asked to remain anonymous.
In a phone interview, the teacher told KYUK that COVID-19 precautions are not being followed in school. The teacher said that kids are touching each other, and some will keep their masks off the whole day. “Usually they’ll listen if you tell them to put it back on, but they’re kids. They’ll break the rules again two minutes later,” the teacher said.
And while students are separated into cohorts, the Kuspuk teacher said that the separation is not strictly enforced and the teachers rotate from cohort to cohort. “I really don’t see the logic behind it,” the teacher said.
After hearing that a Bethel resident in their 30s passed away from the coronavirus, the teacher said, “I am afraid for my own life." The teacher believes that if a staff member or student contracts the virus, it will spread throughout the whole school.
Kuspuk Superintendent James Anderson wrote in an email that no students in the district have tested positive so far. Anderson also said that several sites have gone to “high-risk,” or remote learning, for weeks at a time. He said that the district is communicating with YKHC and tribal or city leaders to decide whether each school should stay open or closed. Lisa Feyereisen is a parent and former teacher who lives in Aniak, one of the communities served by Kuspuk. She supports the district making decisions on a per-village basis.
"As long as it's not community spread, I feel comfortable with the children returning for face-to-face instruction,” Feyereisen said. “But if we find out it’s community spread, then education isn't nearly as important as life.”
YKHC has announced at least 10 cases in Aniak, where a little more than 500 residents live. After the first five cases, Aniak went into lockdown for two weeks, which also meant schools were closed in the village. After the lockdown was lifted, Feyereisen said that in-person classes resumed Nov. 16. Then, additional COVID-19 cases prompted another 8-day lockdown on Nov. 18.
“I’m fine if we have to keep flipping back and forth,” Feyereisen said.
Feyereisen said that she takes YKHC’s recommendation for schools to close down seriously, but she said that there are many concerns that need to be weighed during the pandemic.
“I am extremely worried about the Elders in the community, especially, but I'm worried about the children too,” Feyereisen said.
She said that for her 12-year-old son, the issue is less about his quality of education and more about his mental health. She said that during the lockdowns, her son suffered from the effects of social isolation.
“He starts doing repetitive behavior where there's making an obnoxious noise or whatever,” Feyereisen said. “I see an anxiousness of him, an unsettledness.”
The anonymous teacher who wants Kuspuk to close its schools sympathizes with Feyereisen. The teacher said that it breaks their heart to hear about students struggling without school. But, that teacher added, you can recover from a month of less-than-ideal education and some boredom; you can’t recover from death.
“We have parties going on all the time,” Feyereisen said. “There's a good 30% of this village that are not respecting the fact that this is a huge virus. I think the school is respecting. I don't know about all the teachers, but I think the majority of the teachers are implementing some pretty strict regulations within the classroom.”
Following YKHC’s recommendations, the Lower Kuskokwim, Lower Yukon, Yupiit, Kashanamiut, and Saint Mary’s School Districts are all in remote learning mode until January 2021 at the earliest.