All schools in Alaska are closed to students until at least May 1, but that’s only a small part of how the coronavirus outbreak has impacted the Lower Kuskokwim School District. In a board meeting on April 2, the school board changed graduation requirements for seniors, planned for using schools as quarantine shelters, and adjusted schedules for construction projects.
During the LKSD board meeting on April 2, mostly attended by conference call, Superintendent Dan Walker delivered some bad news.
“It looks like we’re going to need to cancel the graduation ceremonies,” Walker said.
Walker suggested some alternate ways to celebrate the graduating seniors, like hosting a virtual ceremony via Facebook Live, having a parade, or postponing the event until fall.
Given the extreme circumstances, the school board decided to give seniors a break. Board members voted to reduce the graduation requirement from eight semesters to seven, just for this year. Seniors will also be allowed to drop non-required classes with no effect on their Grade Point Average or transcript, and credit-bearing classes will be “pass-fail” for all students. If they want to receive a letter grade, they will have to explicitly ask their teacher.
Assistant Superintendent Kimberly Hankins said that this provides flexibility for students who may have become caretakers for their siblings, or who might have taken on other duties during this time.
Walker also reported that the district is working with the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation on an agreement to use school buildings in Bethel for medical purposes.
“Should there be a surge in the COVID-19 positive patients at the hospital, they’re going to need facilities to house those folks,” Walker said.
He said that the district and the health corporation are already setting up three dorms at Yuut Elitnaurviat, the Bethel Regional High School gym, the Gladys Jung Elementary School gym, and one wing of classrooms in Gladys Jung.
COVID-19 has also slowed down construction of new school buildings. LKSD is in the process of renovating and adding a building in Tuntutuliak. However, the village has banned non-community members from entering.
Walker says that he has told the contractor, ASRC SKW Eskimos Inc., to comply with the village’s rules, and he says that the company has agreed to keep its workers away from the village until the restrictions are lifted.
In the same meeting, the board awarded the Eek School Renovation and Addition project to UIC for $31,906,103, but district staff said travel restrictions would likely delay that project as well.
Looking ahead, Superintendent Walker provided a grim outlook on LKSD’s ability to fill all its teaching positions for the following school year.
“All of our job fairs have been canceled,” Walker said. “All of the uncertainty out there right now is causing people to rethink their adventure side of coming to Alaska,” Walker said.
Walker did say that the district is taking care of its existing employees, including classified staff, which are school employees without teaching credentials. “At this point, we are keeping everyone on paid status,” he said.
Updates from the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development
The state Commissioner of Education, Dr. Michael Johnson, also joined the school board conference call to answer questions. Some board members were curious how teachers would return home after the school year now that airlines have canceled all commercial flights from some villages. Johnson said that the state may look into charter flights. He also reported that there was a “very real possibility” that school closures would be extended past May 1.