With the start of the school year rapidly approaching, what will school look like? The answers are changing as guidelines from the state change and the pandemic spikes in Alaska.
The Lower Kukskokwim School district will be operating at a “medium-risk” level, despite relatively low numbers of COVID-19 cases in the region. Dr. Ellen Hodges, with the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation, says that the reason is that there are very few resources in the region to cope with an infection in the schools areawide, especially in the smaller villages.
“It’s our belief, during a global pandemic in an area such as ours, with poor resources for transportation and minimal resources for health, that there’s really no “low-risk” criteria that could require schools to open at “low-risk.” We have limited health resources, etc., so “medium-risk” is the recommendation we would make for this,” Hodges said.
That means that all students will not be attending school at the same time for a full day, as they have in the past. Instead, each grade will be divided in half, and each group of students would alternate their half-day in classrooms, with the rest of the school day spent learning remotely.
To make that possible in communities and homes without internet, the district has been working with GCI, and is confident that they will have an “intranet” in place to hook up students who don’t have internet services to access online educational services. District Superintendent Kimberly Hankins says that the plan is to hook every student household up before the school year starts.
“So there’ll be a server in each community,” explained Hankins, “and a device in each community that directs traffic to that server from student or teacher housing. So if you are a village resident, what this will require is that you have both a router and an antenna, and then there is a $5 a month fee. The district will be paying for the equipment and the monthly fee for the duration of the school year. If you are a Bethel resident, what it requires is that you have a modem in your home. If you don’t have one already, the district will be providing one. If you already have internet service, you are ready to go.”
The district says that the use of their intranet system will not impact parents’ existing internet bills or service. But what will happen if one of the students or teachers end up with COVID-19? Those are among the tough questions that LKSD and YKHC are working on. Hodges thinks that things could get tougher, especially if there is community spread of COVID-19 in a village or Bethel.
“We would think that the occurrence of community spread in any one of our towns would elevate our current medium-risk to high-risk,” said Hodges. “I believe that’s why Anchorage School District elevated their risk to high-risk.”
If LKSD had community spread of COVID-19 anywhere, the district would have to close schools and conduct all classes online, just as the Anchorage School district is doing this year. There was one village that was thought to have community spread earlier this year, but Hodges says that risk has passed. She also recommends that everyone not travel if they can avoid it this school year.
“This is not the year to take the fancy vacation," Hodges said. "This is a year to kind of hunker down and keep our staff, and our students, and our Elders in our communities safe.”
To keep parents up to date on what school will look like this year, KYUK will be speaking with Hankins every Friday morning during August as the district finalizes plans and systems to operate schools, and to safely teach the district’s students during the pandemic.
Listen to the full conversation with Dr. Hodges and Superintendent Hankins here.