Schools all across Alaska, including those in the Lower Kuskokwim School District, have been shuttered due to COVID-19 until at least March 30. District Superintendent Dan Walker expects the closures to last beyond that, and has been trying to plan accordingly.
“We are most concerned about our seniors and making sure that those students are not in some way harmed in receiving a diploma,” Walker said.
Walker says that some seniors already have the credits they need to graduate, but not every senior. For those students in their final year, and in every other grade, LKSD is working to keep students learning without having to come into the classroom.
“We are looking at, frankly, anything that will work,” Walker said. “We have so many families that don’t have access to the internet that we are asking our sites to be as innovative as they can.”
Walker said that at one site, teachers are recording lessons on video and putting the files on students’ flash drives. He said that most sites will hand out packets of work to students with written instructions. Walker says that the district is also working on getting teleconferences set up so that teachers can instruct their classes over the phone.
“None of this is going to be ideal,” Walker said. “You’ll never replace a teacher in the classroom.”
But parents are appreciative of teachers' efforts. Parent Walter Jim picked up his child's work packet on Thursday, March 19 at Gladys Jung Elementary.
"This really helps out," Jim said. "Especially for those parents who might have only one person in their family working. It's great that they are giving these homework packets out to kids. Gives them something to do."
Despite students being out of the classroom, teachers are often still there. When Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced that public schools in Alaska were closed until March 30, he said that teachers were to continue reporting to work. Walker says that the governor's aim was to give teachers time to come up with these alternative education plans. He said that some schools in the district have already started handing students packets of work and thumb drives with video lessons. He says that students at the remaining sites will have educational content soon.
“I will be stunned if we’re not 100 percent by March 30,” Walker said. “Two weeks should be more than sufficient to get things done.”
The teachers currently working in empty classrooms were on spring break just last week. Many traveled out of the state to areas with higher rates of COVID-19 transmission than Alaska. Walker says that he’s issued those returning staff members the same guidance as the state’s Department of Health and Social Services.
“Self monitor and practice social distancing, and that may mean not going to work or school if you cannot be safely distanced from others,” Walker said.
Walker says that teachers have adhered to the guidance. He’s seen teachers calling each other from their classrooms despite being in the same school building. He knows teachers who are couples with kids that have been coming to the school in shifts.
“I’m going to allow, to the maximum extent possible, people to either work from home, work in shifts, or find ways to isolate themselves so they protect themselves,” Walker said.
And he says that more staff could be working from home very soon.
“When we get the first case in Bethel or one of our villages, we are going to lock this place down,” Walker said. “We are going to only have those most essential people coming on campus.”
In addition to public schools being closed to students, residential boarding schools like Mt. Edgecumbe and the Kuskokwim Learning Academy have sent their students back home. Without a physical place for students to go to school, Walker says that the least the local district can do is provide ways to keep kids learning, fed, and safe.