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Rural School Districts Cope With COVID, Long for Return to ‘Rich Instruction’ in Classrooms


Fairbanks North Star Borough School District officials decided this week to keep students home to work on classes online, in response to an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases locally. But students in two smaller districts south of Fairbanks are attending class in schools, because there’ve only been a few COVID cases in their communities – so far.

When a couple of COVID-19 cases were reported last month in the Delta Junction area, the local school district elevated its risk level to moderate, which required among other things limits on the number of students attending classes in school.

Since then, there haven’t been any new local COVID cases, so Delta Greely School District officials shifted back to the lowest level of risk on Monday – the same day the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District went to Code Red.

“We’re past now two weeks since the last confirmed case, and we feel we can move comfortably to a low-risk scenario,” says Delta Greely Schools Superintendent Shaun Streyle. “And so far, it’s worked extremely well.”

Streyle says district students are again back in the classroom. But he says most other precautions remain in place, including frequent hand-washing and intensive cleaning of the schools, as well as temperature checks and social distancing. But he says masks are not required, under either low- or moderate-risk levels.

“We’re promoting masks, we’re supporting masks, we’re encouraging parents to send masks with their children,” he said. “We have not mandated masks, as far as saying you must wear them.”

Credit DBSD

That policy differs from the Denali Borough School District, which has been operating under its lowest COVID-risk level since classes began last week.

“Face coverings are required for all staff or students or anybody that’s in our buildings,” Denali Schools Superintendent Dan Polta said.

Polta says district officials also are taking the perfunctory precautions like hand-washing and social-distancing. And they’re monitoring the coronavirus situation locally and elsewhere on the road system, especially Fairbanks and the state’s other urban COVID hotspot to the south.

“We’ve watching as they’ve been trending into that high red alert as a community, because we have a lot of connections in Fairbanks, even for like weekend shopping trips,” he said. “So, we want to be aware of what potential risks is coming from Fairbanks, what’s coming from Anchorage, because we have a lot of traffic on the highway.”

Both Polta and Streyle say their districts have boosted staff and support for online classes, if the districts must revert to that, due to increasing COVID incidence. Both say online instruction has worked pretty well in their respective communities, which have good internet service. But they know there are some households that don’t. So Streyle says the Delta-Greely district has teamed up with an internet service provider to help those families.

“We worked hard on that last year, helping those folks out,” he said, “and we have amazing internet providers in town that helped a lot of people get set up.”

Credit DBSD/Facebook
Denali Borough School District Superintendent Dan Polta, upper left, confers with district officials in a Zoom videoteleconference posted to Facebook. Like countless others across the country, the school district mostly meets online as a precaution to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Polta says the Denali Borough district began handing out dozens of so-called my-fi devices that serve as a wi-fi hotspot and enable internet access through a cellphone connection. He says some households required two my-fi’s to keep up with the demand for bandwidth.

“We did find that there are sometimes,” he said, “especially in the distance learning, that we’re like, ‘Yeah, that family should have two, because it’s a staff member that’s leading Zoom meetings and like three different kids in Zoom meetings!”

The two superintendents both say the demand for online instruction will only grow in the years ahead, as shown by the sharp COVID-driven increase in homeschooling in both districts. But both also believe that there’ll be a newfound appreciation for in-person education after the whole coronavirus ordeal passes.

Ideally, Streyle says, the type that happens in a classroom.

“Y’know it’s so important to have the students in the building and working with our teachers, providing that rich instruction and content,” he said.

Polta says he looks forward to returning to an environment that allows students to talk and interact with each other – an environment that’s a lot harder to establish with online classes.

“Because they’re taking away those person-to-person connections, the student-to-student conversations, that kind of development of content and knowledge that we do collectively when we’re together.”

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.