On Monday, Aug. 24, the first day of school, Bethel students will remain at home instead of heading to classrooms. School administrators hope that the kids will be able to come into classrooms part-time by Sept. 8, as originally planned. Lower Kuskokwim School District Superintendent Kimberly Hankins says that this will depend on whether the recent spike of coronavirus cases is contained.
“While YKHC is confident that we do not yet have community spread of COVID-19 in Bethel, we really wanted to allow this time to kind of play out,” said Hankins. “So the goal is to get students in school, in-person, at medium risk, Sept. 8. Of course, that will depend on how things progress from that spike.”
Nunapitchuk is in lockdown because of a COVID-19 case, and their school will also start remotely next week. In both locations, the school day will look much like what happened last spring during the initial COVID precautions. Students will get work packets and food delivered. In Bethel, that will depend on the bus schedule put out by the district.
The other locations in the district will proceed under the “medium risk” scenario as planned, which means smaller class sizes and a part-time classroom schedule. The rest of the work will happen remotely with packets. The district is still working out the kinks on the “intranet” remote learning system it has put in place with GCI.
“We’re hopeful that the whole project districtwide will be up and running, end of September would be great, and I think we’re definitely making strides to get there,” said Hankins.
Despite advice from health professionals against it, the LKSD school board is still directing staff to prepare for a scaled-back athletic program, which would take place in communities with schools operating under “low risk” or “medium risk” for COVID-19. There will be no wrestling or basketball activities. The sports will be limited to cross-country, volleyball, swimming, and fall Native Youth Olympics. The plan calls for using protocols set up by the Alaska School Activities Association. LKSD is also setting up “mini leagues” within the district that would operate under medium risk.
“So what that would look like, for example, is our tundra villages, Atmautluak, Nunapitchuk, and Kasigluk, would all be a league,” Hankins said.
Hankins said that the district has three sites that are committed to doing athletics this year, and they are committed to limiting the exposure to small groups of kids. But when pressed about how taking even one trip to another school would break that circle of potential exposure and expand it, she said that the district is still working it out.
“Right. And we haven’t crossed that bridge yet. We don’t have any plans for that yet. We have three sites that have worked with their advisory school boards to move forward with athletics and so, you know, we’re all learning this as we go,” Hankins said.
LKSD remains concerned about all sorts of travel during the pandemic. So far, the region’s isolation has largely protected it from the rising case numbers in Alaska’s urban centers. People traveling in and out of Anchorage and elsewhere have brought the disease to the Y-K Delta, and most of the cases have been detected through testing at the Bethel airport. The district wants families who decide to travel to notify the local school before heading out so distance learning can be maintained, and so that measures can be taken to keep people safe when the family returns.