Some families in Bethel say they are considering moving if the next school year looks similar to this one. On April 29, 18 parents, teachers and students — nearly all from Bethel — called into a Lower Kuskokwim School District board meeting. Many pleaded with the district to allow students to return to in-person school five days a week and for sports to resume.
The district said it’s taking action to meet those demands.
The Lower Kuskokwim School District closed down in-person school last March and kept schools closed as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta hard. Now well over half of the region’s eligible adult population has received a COVID-19 vaccine, and the number of cases is the lowest it’s been since September.
Eric Young, a teacher at Bethel Regional High School, said he and a number of parents are seeking clearer expectations from the district about what the next school year will look like.
“I think we’re starting to see a number of people who are tired of getting strung along, and not knowing what’s going to happen, and not seeing an end to this,” Young said.
Young said he’s written 10 recommendations for students who want to transfer next year to Mt. Edgecumb High School, a boarding school in Sitka. He said that’s several times more than he writes in normal years.
But the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation says that despite the improvements, most areas in the Y-K Delta still have either substantial or high transmission. YKHC also says that 59% of active cases are in children under the age of 18, many of whom are not yet eligible for the vaccine.
This March, the district allowed elementary school students and other high-need students to return to classrooms. But many were limited to in-person learning for only two days a week.
“The emotional and professional relief has been astounding with two days, but it’s simply not enough,” said Kaymbra Mortensen, a kindergarten teacher and a parent in Bethel. She’s one of many parents who are balancing their jobs and helping their children with remote learning.
Superintendent Kimberly Hankins spoke with KYUK after the board meeting. She said students in some schools were limited to two days a week of in-person learning because of physical distancing requirements.
“It’s really based on the size of the school, the size of the classes, the size of the physical space,” Hankins said.
She said in many village schools that have more space, students have been attending class four days a week. YKHC recently announced new guidance saying that students only need to keep 3 feet of physical distance between each other if they’re in the same cohort. Previously, the recommendation was 6 feet of distance. Hankins said that means more students can be in school at the same time, increasing the number of days per week each student can attend school.
“We all want students back in classrooms five days a week, as soon as possible, and as safely as possible. And we are taking steps in that direction for that to happen,” Hankins said.
Other parents who called into the board meeting on April 28 said the lack of sports and extracurricular activities was draining their kids’ motivation. Martin Smith, a parent in Bethel, said his son has a chance to receive a college scholarship for wrestling, but lost the opportunity to compete this year.
“For him wrestling isn’t just a sport, it’s a way of life. For my whole family, it isn’t just a sport, it’s a way of life,” Smith said tearing up. “My son has an opportunity to make family history. And he only gets that opportunity if he gets to wrestle this year.”
The school board asked student representative Jordan Wheeler, an 11th grader in Bethel, what she thought the board should do regarding sports.
“I think that students really want activities,” Wheeler said. “And for me personally, if we don’t get activities, I’m considering not going to school in our region.”
The board responded by taking action on April 28 to allow both indoor and outdoor sports activities to resume along with travel for competition. Parents and local advisory school boards will get to weigh in on whether they want their students to participate. Allowing sports indoors goes against YKHC’s recommendations.
Doug Boyer, the district’s operations director, said that some schools plan to begin sports practices as early as the weekend of May 1. He also said that students would be able to attend the state tournaments for wrestling and track and field if they qualified.
Hankins said that testing would be a big component of participating in sports. She said a third to a half of school sites have implemented routine testing for students and staff. She also said that while there are only a few weeks left in the school year, the board’s action to allow sports would set the stage for the next school year.
“Definitely for the fall, this is the direction we’re heading, and it’s really exciting,” Hankins said.
Regina Lieb, who grew up in Bethel and is raising her kids in Bethel, said her family is also considering moving.
“I love Bethel. I love the school. I love what my kids should be getting from it. But they can’t go through another school year like this one,” Lieb said.
Superintendent Hankins said she wished she could provide the guarantees that parents are looking for.
“I don’t think anyone can promise what the pandemic is going to look like a month down the road. If they could I’d love to know them,” Hankins said. “With the addition of the youth vaccine for ages 12 through 15 that should be available soon, I have even greater hope that we are trending in the right direction.”
On May 2, Hankins told KYUK that she communicated with YKHC following the board meeting, which provided her more clarity on what the next school year will look like. She said that the district will release a draft of a plan by the June 3 board meeting.
“That plan for August will include a full return to in-person learning, as well as student activities,” Hankins said.
For now, Hankins said that graduations this year would look similar to the way they did last year, with outdoor ceremonies and parades. She also said that many sites will be offering some form of summer school to try to offset the learning lost over the past year.