ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) – In a state the size of Alaska, there are different educational challenges in different sections of this sprawling scholastic community. As this pending Covid-19 complicated year draws near, KTUU reached out to some of the smaller districts to see how they are preparing.
In Nome, the hope is that school will be able to begin with full in-person classes. There will be safety modifications but otherwise, it should resemble a normal year. This is the green risk phase. If the numbers trend down into what is called the yellow risk phase classes could go from full-time to a hybrid plan. Students would attend classes two days a week and only with half of the school in attendance at any given time. The rest of the week would be reserved for online education.
Nome Superintendent Jamie Burgess is getting her team of teachers and staff ready for the year but just what this year will look like and how much it will change from day one to day fifty remains to be seen. “Our biggest focus for day one if we open and we are in green is, how do we make sure that our students and our parents and our staff are prepared for a change. We may have to shift to a hybrid model or for short term shut down so that we’re ready to go to make sure education doesn’t stop.” Says Burgess.
Like every school in America right now this crisis poses a lot of challenges and problems that don’t have a lot of simple or easy answers. “It’s very challenging, this isn’t something that was ever covered in teacher school, principal school, or superintendent school.” Says Burgess.
In Nome specifically, one concern of returning to a hybrid system, or even going completely online, is internet access. Some families in the Nome area don’t have unlimited high-speed internet. For plenty of students, the school itself is their best opportunity to go online but per federal guidelines, the school cannot expand the reach of their wifi system to the rest of the town.
“What we’re really hoping is that we’ll be able to get a waiver from the FCC which would allow us to push our districts internet beyond the walls of our school. Like many of us small rural communities we are dependent upon a federal program called ERATE. The ERATE program puts a lot of limitations on what we can and can not do so we need a waiver for them and one of the things we can’t do is allow the internet outside our school walls.” Says Burgess.
While a waiver for the ERATE program would help, having kids in classrooms would be even better. In an example of how rural villages and towns face unique challenges there are scenarios where, even if the testing data is positive, Nome still may not be able to have kids in the building. That’s because in the year 2020, more than any previous year in recent memory, keeping the school clean is paramount. However, superintendent Burgess tells me that they are struggling to fill their janitorial staff. If the district is unable to fill those roles and thus unable to clean the school properly it could also lead to closures. The same goes for cleaning supplies, which are both difficult to source at the moment and expensive to import to Nome, especially after ships stop delivering to the area in fall.
“If I cant staff, if I don’t have enough staff to make sure that everybody is safe and education is happening or if I don’t have enough supplies and everything is running short we may have to close school for a week or two.” Everybody home schools and everybody does their at-home virtual learning until we can get those materials in which again is going to be even more disruptive.” Says Burgess.
As superintendent Burgess noted, no one in the education industry has really been trained for the challenges that are facing teachers, staff, and students during Covid-19. She is hopeful that parents and families will be patient in these difficult times as faculty at every level of learning attempt to plot the best course forward.
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