Students in rural Alaska struggle with distance learning

Published: May. 5, 2020 at 6:32 PM AKDT
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Some time remains before the school year is over, and teachers are still getting used to learning from home methods. Alaska's more urban communities, while challenged, have an easier time getting connected to the internet, but out in the rural villages the task has proven to be a struggle.

In the Bering Strait School District, Superintendent Dr. Bobby Bolen said his teachers are managing with limited resources. He said only about 5 percent of the students in his district have enough internet connectivity to make online courses a viable option.

With that obstacle in mind, he said he's allowed his teachers to control how they handle teaching their classes remotely.

"I've kind of left it open for teachers to be creative and to come up with ways," he said. "They know what their kids need."

In his district and several others, administrators have instead opted to send work packets out to the students. Bolen said most students have enough service to turn in their work by taking a picture of it and sending it to their teachers via email or text message.

He said connecting to internet and getting digital data isn't impossible in his district, but between the price people have to pay for internet in the villages and slow speeds of that service, they knew they needed to figure out a different method.

Providers have been trying to help out. Heather Handyside of GCI said the company has been offering free service to students without internet and free upgrades to current subscribers through May 31.

Handyside said the best way to connect village communities to the internet is through fiber optic cables, but that's not always possible in the most remote villages. Instead, she said, they commonly use wireless hot-spot devices. These have been in high demand since coronavirus came to Alaska.

"We went through the amount of equipment that we would normally use in a year, we went through that in a matter of just a week or two," she said.

During these times, Handyside said, GCI along with the other 12 internet companies in the state have been partnering together to come up with ways to overcome the difficulties should remote learning and working continue to be common practice.

Teachers such as Sonia Herrmann, a K-1 instructor at Aniguiin School in Elim, are still trying to overcome teaching their students. Herrmann said she was outside of Alaska during spring break when "hunker-down" orders were announced, so getting back to students at all was difficult.

"While they were in school, I was attending webinars for distance learning and just trying to get educated," she said. "I think where a lot of people are thinking that we're all moving forward with distant learning online and virtual classes, it's not the case in rural Alaska."

She said many of her students have trouble being connected to the internet, so she also sends out the work packets. However, she said most of her students have enough resources to call into Google Meets sessions once a week for things like read alongs. Their first meeting happened just after Easter.

"We have students call in where they won't be able to see me but they can hear me and I can hear them," she said, "You know, we got to ask each other, 'how was your Easter? And what did you do?' You know just keep that interaction alive."

It's been difficult, and she said she's gotten tired, but she is pushing on for her students. She said they are all looking forward to their graduation parade happening Friday.

Even though the school year isn't over yet, educators in rural districts said they're already thinking about how they're going to adapt to remote learning in the fall.

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