Bering Strait School District opens school year in red zone
As schools around Alaska and the country grapple with reopening in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bering Strait School District is in the early stages of bringing students back into the classroom. Schools face the unprecedented tension between the desire to have students learn in person and the safety of the community. This tension is amplified in rural Alaskan communities, which lack both the internet capacity for virtual learning and the medical resources to respond to a COVID-19 outbreak. However, case numbers have remained relatively low in Western Alaska, making educators hopeful that by October students will be in schools full time.
“We expect it to be an interesting year,” said BSSD Superintendent Dr. Bobby Bolen.
BSSD divided their reopening into three stages, or the red, yellow and green zones.
Currently schools are in the red zone, from school start on August 26 through September 11. This stage, also known as the “Back to School Readiness Challenge,” is entirely distance learning. During these two and a half weeks, students are not in the classroom and learning is occurring through activity packets that students pick up each day. Bolen explained that these activities, which are akin to a scavenger hunt, incorporate traditional Western Alaskan values into learning. For example, one task is to interview an Elder.
In terms of sports, only cross country has started thus far. Practices are held entirely outside and athletes wear masks when it is impossible to maintain physical distancing. Bolen said the plan is to eventually have volleyball and cheerleading as well.
However, volleyball will likely be limited to mostly intramural competitions because there is currently no non-essential travel between villages. It is possible that teams will be able to travel this fall, Bolen said, but only between villages that are both considered in the green zone. In the meantime, however, emulating competition is tough, and even holding virtual cross country races is not ideal, as each course is different and thus it is impossible to compare times. Wrestling, a sport where it is inherently impossible for competitors to physically distance, is currently not offered, but according to Bolen a final decision will be made in a few months.
On Monday, September 14, 14 BSSD schools are scheduled to transition into the yellow zone. Due to the high number of cases in Stebbins, the school there will remain in the red zone until September 21, Bolen said.
The yellow zone is a modified school opening in which students are divided into two groups based on schedule. Group A will be in the building for half-days on Mondays and Tuesdays, while Group B will be in the classroom on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Students will be given assignments to complete at home during the days they are not in the classroom. Bolen explained that the combination of in-person and distance learning during the yellow phase will give teachers, students and administrators time to “work out the kinks” of having students in schools during a public health crisis.
In order to have students in the classroom, BSSD has instituted a set of steps to keep students and communities safe. “It’ll be a daily task,” Bolen said of the COVID-19 protocol each of the district’s schools will be following. This includes twice-daily temperature checks for all students as well as family members if they choose to enter the building when dropping students off. To expedite the temperature checks, Bolen said BSSD has ordered thermo-scanners in addition to thermometers. Masks will be required for students in third grade and up at all times except for when it is possible to socially distance, such as when sitting down and engaged in individual work. Masks are encouraged, but not required, for younger students, and face shields are available as well.
After October 5, the hope is that all schools will be in the green zone, meaning all students will be in the classroom every day. Ultimately, however, each school will make the final decision about what is best for their students and community. “It’s almost like we need 15 plans,” said Bolen, “And after October 5 we might.” This means that it is possible for some schools to be completely in person, while others are entirely distanced. The school’s status will primarily depend upon the number of cases in the community.
The 2020-2021 school year is not ideal for any district, but, with schools in 15 communities spread throughout an area roughly the size of Minnesota (including St. Lawrence Island and Little Diomede) BSSD educators must overcome unique hurdles. As Bolen stated, a particular challenge for BSSD is that each community is in a different situation in terms of the pandemic, making it difficult to have one streamlined plan for the entire district. The district needs to respect and manage the needs of 15 different communities and tribal governments. “We want to honor their wishes and keep students, staff and communities safe,” said Bolen. However, he said, “You can’t please everyone.” and that “Every decision is challenged.” He explained that residents are divided as to whether the school in their community should be open or not. Some people are more cautious, and believe schools should remain closed, while others believe learning should occur in person. “There are pros and cons to both sides,” Bolen emphasized. But it is not only individual communities that must be accounted for, but also the district as a collective. Attitudes vary greatly between the 15 villages. “It can be between 40-60 [against and for schools remaining closed] in one village, and the opposite in another,” he said.
When making decisions, Bolen said BSSD works closely with Norton Sound Health Corporation to assess data and weigh different options. “We need to account for all factors,” he said. What is important is not only case number—Bolen added that most communities in the region have a very low infection rate, especially when compared to cities such as Anchorage—but rather where the cases are coming from. For example, if a traveling worker brings in the virus and immediately self-isolates, that probably is not reason to change the school protocol. But if the virus is community spread, and especially if it is in families with students in the schools, that is cause for concern.
Managing the needs of over a dozen communities is difficult, but perhaps the greatest challenge for the district is the lack of adequate internet access. Bolen explained that it is impossible to have a virtual learning curriculum in a district where 90 percent of the communities do not have sufficient internet. Diomede principal Mike Gadbois voiced a similar concern. Diomede, like many communities in the region, simply lacks the internet capacity for virtual learning. Few families have internet and those who do, do not have internet that is sufficient for online instruction to take place. This means that any distance learning will occur through packets from teachers and phone conversations. BSSD used this method last March and according to Bolen, “It wasn’t a great situation.”
Gadbois, too, is worried about the quality of education if the school needs to revert back to distance learning this year. He gave distance learning an “A for effort,” but said that the inability to directly teach and monitor students made it difficult for learning to occur and so the method had “questionable effectiveness.”
However, given the lack of internet, paper packets are the only feasible option. This is the reality of the internet inequality in rural Alaska, Bolen said. “We’re at the mercy of a monopoly that doesn’t provide sufficient services to rural communities,” he added. Since educators lacked the ability to offer the kind of instruction that has proven traditionally meaningful last spring, Gadbois said that the first part of the school year will be dedicated to filling in any gaps that may have formed. The plan, according to Gadbois, is to expedite learning in the first few weeks so that students do not suffer down the line.
In addition to the lack of internet, Bolen said another challenge of managing BSSD during the pandemic are travel restrictions, which impede the ability for teachers and administrators to get into villages or move between villages. Many communities have instituted mandatory quarantine periods, which take both students and teachers who leave the village out of schools for extended periods of time. According to Bolen, one of the reasons that BSSD started in the red zone was because, due to travel restrictions and mandatory quarantine periods, teachers’ arrival was delayed and many were not physically in the classroom until the end of August.
The last difficulty Bolen described is not limited to the pandemic, but is certainly exacerbated by the virus. That is, he explained, the lack of infrastructure such as running water in many homes and communities. Sanitation and hygiene are central to minimizing the spread of the virus, but “How are you supposed to wash hands without running water?” Additionally, many homes in the region are extremely crowded, making it virtually impossible to socially distance or quarantine.
This is certainly true in Diomede, a community in which several of the problems villages and schools in the district face are amplified. Gadbois listed a particular challenge for the Diomede school as its size. The building has only one room, which makes social distancing and navigating the safety protocol challenging. The Diomede school is seeing one of its lowest enrollments in years with just 15 students. There is limited space in the school and there are just two teachers - including Gadbois who also has principal duties. Students will be divided into groups during the second phase. This is partially because Gadbois said there were an “influx” of kindergartners this year and a crucial component of the modified opening will be teaching kindergartners how to operate in a COVID-19 environment.
Diomede recently saw its first COVID-19 cases, making the community cautious about the school reopening, Gadbois said. However, all three of the cases were contained and there appears to be no further spread. Gadbois is optimistic about the likelihood of opening on schedule. “We hope that we’re still in a good spot from a community standpoint with no cases and are ready to move into the green zone on October 5.” Gadbois praised the tribe and community leadership for taking extra precautions to keep Diomede safe, and said that the community has been happy with the plan that BSSD has in place for the school. “We’re eager to get kids back, but also want to be safe,” Gadbois said, describing the central dilemma schools face and voicing a sentiment shared among educators.