This fall, social distancing at the Lower Kuskokwim School District will mean fewer students at a time in school buildings, and there will be new ways of staying connected while students learn from home.
When students at LKSD went on Spring Break last March, they expected to come back to school in a week. They haven’t been back in their classrooms since. The transition to remote learning was less than smooth. Some parents complained about the paper work packets that their children were receiving instead of instruction. In the last school board meeting, Superintendent Dan Walker, who’s retiring this July, told board members that next year has to be different.
“Something's got to give from what it was like this spring; it was less than ideal,” Walker said.
Assistant Superintendent Kimberly Hankins, who will be taking Walker’s job, says that it’s likely students will be able to go to school in person this fall, but not all at once.
“One group of students attend school Monday, Tuesday, and is doing remote learning the rest of the week. Another group attends school Thursday, Friday, and does remote learning the other days of the week,” Hankins said. “Or it could be a half-day scenario where one group of students is in person in the morning and does remote learning in the afternoons, and vice versa.”
Hankins said that the district would take precautions to protect students and staff. Everyone would be required to wear a face mask as well as maintain 6 feet of social distancing, and students would mostly stay in the same classroom.
Although she says that school days with half the students are the most likely scenario, Hankins also says that nobody knows how the COVID-19 pandemic will progress. If the risk of the virus dwindles, it’s still possible that the school will open up all the way. And if the pandemic worsens, the schools may close their doors completely to students like they did this year. Hankins says that the district is preparing for all three possibilities.
“So that we can fluidly move between low, medium, and high risk,” Hankins said.
Superintendent Walker also promised a better remote-learning experience next year. He said that students will be able to send and receive files with their teachers and video conference with them via Zoom, all without using any of the students’ internet data. The school district is working with GCI to set up a private network in all of the district’s 28 sites. He said that each student’s family would likely have a separate modem to connect to this private network. Walker said that the private network will be ready before the next school year starts. GCI spokesperson Heather Handyside confirmed that the company is working on the project with LKSD and other rural Alaskan school districts, but said that details were not ready to be publicly released.
Walker said that when students in rural Alaska don’t have access to digital content in a way that their peers in urban areas do, that creates an equity issue.
“This is an effort to bridge that gap,” Walker said. “It may not fully level the playing field, but it's a huge step forward compared to where we were.”
LKSD will be paying GCI to set up the private network from the $2.8 million the school district received in CARES Act funding. LKSD is also spending the CARES Act money on personal protective equipment for students and staff, and on salaries for extra teachers if classes need to be split up to a smaller, safer size.
Walker and Hankins said that the final key to remote education will be training teachers and students to work in this new environment. The outgoing and incoming superintendent said that last year the coronavirus caught them off guard, but this year the district is more prepared.