When High School is Away from Home

How Alaska’s Residential Campuses are Adapting to the COVID-19 Pandemic
Published: Aug. 4, 2020 at 7:09 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Boarding and residential schools in Alaska are each adapting differently to the risks of COVID-19. Adhering to the state of Alaska’s Smart Start guidelines, and at the urging of public health and government officials to make local decisions, the schools are assessing the needs of their students and communities in formulating what back-to-school will look like.

Anchorage-based Kusilvak Career Academy, a residential option for 11th and 12th graders from the Lower Yukon School District, will welcome students to its Spenard hotel-turned-campus after labor day. The decision to have students come to Anchorage was made carefully, the district's residential coordinator, Conrad Woodhead, told KTUU Tuesday.

Part of the decision process was recognizing the equity issues between urban and rural students, and a commitment from the district to give its students continued opportunities for options not available in their home community. Benefits of time spent learning in Anchorage include access to guest speakers, opportunities to experience aviation simulators and other career paths, and access to outdoor opportunities, Woodhead said. The school also has a partnership with King Tech High School within the Anchorage School District, which in previous years has allowed Academy students to take classes at King Tech beginning in the second quarter of the school year.

Another benefit, he said, is access to a reliable internet connection, to help facilitate distance learning.

“We feel that that’s going to be huge in providing a quality educational experience to our students, and the other piece is the connectivity,” Woodhead said.

The academy has cut in half the number of students who will attend, going from a student group of 50 to 25. Health checks will be performed, social distancing implemented and masks will be worn, Woodhead said.

"We're a dormitory type setting here, so obviously we are going to look closely at room assignments, cohorts for regions, access to the main building here and classroom space in a safe manner, while following all of our Smart Start goals for the schools and compliance with the district and the state as well as any ordinances that come from the city of Anchorage," Woodhead said.

On Tuesday, Alaska health and education leaders spoke during an education summit via zoom to the unique challenges posed by boarding schools.

"Residential is much harder because there is more spread when people are eating and sleeping together, so you want to think about what ways you can cohort, again, in similar sorts of groups," Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said.

"Cohorting" is a way to group individuals in smaller clusters. A diagram shared by Dr. Zink Tuesday showed how one infected person among a large group of people can easily lead to widespread illness. But if the same individual's interaction is limited to a smaller group of people, the rate of viral spread is significantly reduced.

Kusilvak Learning Academy is looking at clustering students by the home community. Sitka-based Mount Edgecumbe is also looking at reducing student interactions and exposures by forming "crews" -- groups of students who will stick together.

"There's a way to do it. it's unique to each program, depending on their facility, depending on the resources they have in their community, but they seem to be getting there," Alaska education commissioner Dr. Michael Johnson said Tuesday of the various residential programs throughout the state.

Dr. Zink has mentioned that testing in a residential campus setting could be a good tool in mitigating the risk of viral spread, a recommendation Mount Edgecumbe is robustly implementing.

“Students coming in from high-risk areas will be traveling separately and will be quarantined in a separate location until we have at least two negative results,” Janelle Vanasse, Mount Edgecumbe’s Superintendent, told KTUU Tuesday.

Vanasse said the first two weeks of student arrivals will be a critical phase in the school’s ability to establish a healthy baseline from which to begin the year. After the initial tests and quarantines are over, a quarter of the student body will undergo routine weekly testing, resulting in the entire student body getting tested monthly, with the goal of identifying asymptomatic individuals.

Teachers will also return to school with new routines and containment zones of their own.

"Our teachers are all going to have what we call teacher stations, that for the first two weeks they're not allowed to come out of. And it's basically a teacher bubble in which they can teach from. It's got a sneeze guard in front of it. Everyone will have masks and they're six feet away. And it's tough, you know. Typically we don't ask teachers to stand in one place in their room and teach from that one spot," Vanasse said.

Meanwhile, the Kuskokwim Learning Academy in Bethel has closed its residential option. Lower Kuskokwim School District Superintendent Kimberly Hankins said the district wasn't comfortable with the risk of housing students together during the pandemic.

The school will remain open to Bethel-based students, and those students from other communities who have a relative in Bethel they can stay with, Hankins said.

All of the schools we spoke with said one of the biggest lessons within education amid COVID is to stay nimble, to remain flexible to change as rates of viral spread shift in the weeks and months ahead.

"It has to be fluid, and we have to be ready to adapt at a moment's notice. That's just how it's going to have to be this year," Hankins said.

A big driver in boarding and residential schools choosing to stay open is the importance of the relationships formed between staff and students, the schools told KTUU. Balancing the benefit of those close relationships and unique learning opportunities against the risks posed by the pandemic has challenges and solutions unique to each region.

Late Tuesday, Alaska Governor Michael Dunleavy reiterated the importance of local decision making and encouraged families with questions about education to reach out to their local school or school district.

Copyright 2020 KTUU. All rights reserved.

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