When Y-K Delta villages locked down travel several months ago, the Lower Kuskokwim School District had to shut down construction on several new schools being built. Throughout the beginning of summer, construction crews have taken advantage of the relaxed restrictions to resume work. It’s a fragile arrangement, as new COVID-19 cases threaten to bring back village travel restrictions.
LKSD is in the process of designing or building new school facilities in Eek, Tuntutuliak, Atmautluak, and Napakiak. In the last school board meeting on June 4, Director of Operations Ed Pekar reported that villages’ COVID-19-related travel restrictions had halted work at some sites a few months ago. But since then, he said those restrictions have eased and construction crews have resumed work. Throughout, Pekar said, LKSD has been working with each village to comply with any restrictions that exist.
“We have not gone to any village without approval from each village,” Pekar said.
One of the villages where a new school is being built is Tuntutuliak. Tribal Administrator Deanna White said that the community reopened to travel on May 15.
“Seeing that there wasn’t that many cases popping up around Bethel and the surrounding villages, and YKHC is doing COVID tests when Alaska Airlines or people from Anchorage come in,” White said.
She said that Tuntutuliak is requiring LKSD’s construction workers from outside the Y-K Delta to receive a test for COVID-19 before coming to the village. Plus, they must stay confined to their living quarters or the work site for two weeks upon arrival.
In June, the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation announced 10 cases of COVID-19. White says Tuntutuliak has not reinstated a travel ban as a result. But she says the village would reconsider if coronavirus starts to spread within the Y-K Delta.
"If there’s like a bigger outbreak of this COVID, then we would go on lockdown for sure," White said.
White says, if Tuntutuliak locks down again, the existing construction workers would be allowed to stay.
Superintendent Dan Walker says that a team is also in Napakiak. The village of Napakiak is eroding away, and the school is right on the riverbank. The district has already been forced to move the school’s fuel tanks, leaving potentially contaminated ground beneath. Walker says that workers are currently cleaning up the ground, and should finish this summer.
There are also engineers and architects in Napakiak designing a new school to be built further away from the river. There is no money yet to build the school, but the district has designated Napakiak as its top priority for capital project funding from the state.
The school district has also begun cleaning up debris from the Kilbuck School fire of 2015. The demolition contract was awarded to Ahtna Global, LLC for $2,488,461, and the company was due to begin work June 9.
Walker says that the district is planning to build the new campus next to Bethel Regional High School. But to fund construction, the district must resolve its dispute with its insurance companies over what it's owed for its claim for the fire. Walker said that the COVID-19 pandemic has put any settlement discussion on pause. LKSD is suing its insurance companies, with the jury trial scheduled for July 2021.