‘Inspiring Stories from Alaska’s Schools Emerge Amid the Crisis’ by Seanna O’Sullivan and Sam Jordan at ASDN

In a matter of a few short weeks public schools around the world have been challenged by COVID-19 virus with an unprecedented task: with little or no time for training, resources or directives, assemble a widespread distance education program that reaches every student, in every grade, in every home. 

Alaskan principals from across the state meeting to plan for the COVID-19 response (photo courtesy of New Stuyahok Principal Robin Jones)

Superintendents, educators and support staff around Alaska have responded to this crisis with resolve, creativity, care, and at times, some well needed humor. Our schools have developed meal distribution sites in different locations, assessed needs of students, families and communities across the state and developed systems for delivering instruction, ever mindful of the need to avoid risk of transmitting the virus. 

Here are a few uplifting stories recently shared by Alaskan educators:

In the Northwest Arctic Borough School District, where many homes in the region do not have access to internet, schools are providing access to learning through low tech means. Teachers make daily, scheduled contact with students by phone and classes are held on audio conference lines. Paper packets of learning materials have been created but home packets are also posted on the district home page for those parents who can print them.

In Shaktoolik, part of the Bering Strait School District, where internet is also limited, the local radio station is simulcasting story time every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 1 pm through VHF radio as well as Facebook live for students and families in the village. Teachers who read the stories on air then follow up the story time with phone calls to students to ask questions about the books that were read. Both breakfast and lunch have been delivered throughout the community on sled by Paul F. Asicksik School, accompanied by a friendly dinosaur to lighten spirits.

Photo of Paul F Asicksik School staff delivering meals in Shaktoolik. (photo by Levi Cross)

Alaska’s villages aren’t the only region spotting dinosaurs. At Fire Lake Elementary in the Anchorage School District, Cafeteria Manager, Mrs. Donna Wilson has been providing meals and smiles to students daily. The staff says she goes above and beyond to make students feel loved and safe, making sure they have a dino-mite day. 

The Bering Strait School District is using their 3-D printers, vinyl cutters, and FAB Labs to provide Health Providers in Norton Sound Health Corporation and surrounding villages with face shields and vent masks.

Superintendent Dr. Robert Bolen models a face shield made by BSSD to support local health workers.

 At Houghtaling Elementary School in the Ketchikan Gateway Borough School District music teacher Jillian Pollock is sharing videos that engage her students from home and focus on using materials most have on hand. Videos may also be seen/accessed on Ms. Jillian’s website https://www.kgbsd.org/domain/878 

Kassandra Mirosh, a secondary teacher at Tri-Valley School in the Denali Borough School District, recognized that the adults aren’t the only ones feeling the stresses as we move to this world of distance education, and helped the students connect to and support each other by leading them in an activity to reflect on four things they could do each day to take care of themselves. 

The Anchorage School District stepped up to contribute supplies from their inventory of supplies from their pre-nursing and art programs to local medical staff. So far, the District says they were able to donate 21,128 N95 masks, 1,584 hand sanitizer bottles, 7,200 pairs of gloves, 1,300 surgical masks, 46 cases of disinfectant wipes, 50 face shields, 32 goggles and 10 gowns.

Members of the Anchorage Fire Department load N95 face masks that were donated by The Anchorage School District. (Robert DeBerry/ASD)

High school seniors across the state and nation are facing an abrupt end to their high school experiences far sooner than anticipated. On top of the fear and confusion of a global pandemic these teens have more questions than answers about what school closures and shelter in place means for them moving forward. As reality sinks in, however, many are finding that their connections cross classroom walls and that sacrifices they are making now have a true impact on the greater good of their fellow community members. 

Students at Mt. Edgecumbe, many of whom are facing the loss of some of the most memorable milestones in life, are also stepping up to make the most of the situation and finding outlets to process the experience. As boarding schools closed early for the year, students donned caps and gowns while they packed up their things, knowing it would be their only opportunity.  

Mt. Edgecumbe students gather in their graduation caps and gowns before their boarding school closed for the year.

The faces pictured, and not, have been my dear classmates for the last four years. I’m not denying that it hurts that we may not get to turn our tassels over together, but that ceremony is not nearly as important as the memories we’ve made and what we’ve learned. I’ve seen the Class of 2020 stand together despite COVID-19, practicing social distancing, getting on ZOOM calls to connect, talk, and laugh, and being there for each other, however remotely,” says Mallory Orenstein, Lathrop High School senior set to graduate this spring. “Class of 2020, better days are ahead. We’re going to make it through this, coming out on the other side, whether we like it or not, adults. Much love to the seniors of Lathrop High School, Fairbanks, and beyond. Corona can’t take away our credits, our accomplishments, or our friendships.” 

Lathrop High School Seniors show solidarity beyond their graduating class. (Courtesy Lathrop High School Senior Mallory Orenstein)

This unprecedented experience is teaching everyone lessons that will play out in the months and years to come, and forever change these generations who will soon lead the way. The stories of community, love and support, despite obstacles that are yet to be resolved, give a promise of a bright future on the other side of this crisis in Alaska and beyond.