Tok-based Alaska Gateway School District has been teaching students both in the classroom and online this school year, in an effort reduce the spread of coronavirus and maintain the quality of education. The district superintendent says it’s so far, the hybrid form of instruction has worked pretty well.
When schools began shutting down earlier this year and converting to online instruction to limit the spread of coronavirus, it became clear that many students weren’t learning as well as they did in the classroom. That’s why the Alaska Gateway School District launched what the superintendent calls a “blended” form of instruction that teaches both virtually and in-class.
“We wanted to develop a system that would enable us to move as seamlessly back and forth between a virtual and an in-person environment,” Scott MacManus said.
The superintendent says the system was needed because the district like all others in Alaska has had to shut down schools when the number of community residents testing positive for the virus rose too high. And then, when possible, the district has reopened schools after the spike in positive tests subsides and the buildings have been deep-cleaned.
“Our whole system is designed around this blended learning idea,” he said, “so everything that the teachers are doing in their classrooms, they have a way of trying to do that virtually at home.”
MacManus says that’s come in handy this school year, when the district had to shut down and then reopen the Mentasta Lake Katie John School, because of a couple of waves of virus positive tests among residents of the area on the Tok Cutoff.
“We did a two-week complete shutdown, that was virtual,” he said. “And now, we’re doing what’s called a soft start, and we’re rolling those kids back into class, based on family ‘pods.’ ”
Family pods are groups of students who live in one household and who have not tested positive for exposure to virus. So those students are considered safe to return to the classroom. The pod is then rotated into classes, usually for two days week, but still required to continue online instruction throughout. That’s also being done at the Tetlin School, in coordination with the village council that oversees communities where the schools are located.
“We’re basically following their lead because, y’know, it’s their community,” MacManus said in a recent interview.
The blended instruction helped Northway School students keep up when village and district officials opened and shut that schoolhouse a couple of times this semester because of virus concerns. According to its website, it’s now shut it down for 24 days.
“Right now, we’re in a full shut-down,” he said. “So we’re doing virtual in Northway.”
To handle an outbreak around Tok, attendance has been split at the K-through-12 Tok School, the district’s biggest. Students in kindergarten through fifth grade attend classes in school, while sixth- through 12th-graders are learning online. Students at the district’s other schools in Eagle, Tanacross and Dot Lake are all being taught in classrooms.
MacManus says online instruction isn’t as good as in-class. But he says as part of a blended teaching system it can help fill the gap when students can’t come to class – if teachers maintain daily contact with them, and if the district ensures students have what they need to log-on from home.
“We have internet subsidies that we’ve worked out with our local internet service provider,” he said. “and we have a program called AP&T Connects, so all of our kids have access to internet at home.”
Or at least, almost all. MacManus says the program has boosted the number of students with home internet access from about 50 percent last year to about 96 percent this year.