LISTEN: As coronavirus shuts down schools across Alaska, educators are figuring out what happens next

Schools across the state are closed until at least May 1. In a state that has low or no internet in some areas, how are districts working to meet the educational, nutritional and mental health needs of students? How can parents help their kids and themselves stay sane and healthy? District officials join us to discuss education during a pandemic on the next Talk of Alaska.

HOST: Lori Townsend
GUESTS:

  • Beth Lougee, Superintendent, Ketchikan Gateway Borough School District
  • Dr. Deena Bishop, Superintendent, Anchorage School District
  • Dr. Tami Lubitsh-White, psychologist

Call 550-8422 (Anchorage) or 1-800-478-8255 (statewide) during the live broadcast.

Send an email to talk@alaskapublic.org (comments may be read on air).

Post your comment before, during or after the live broadcast (comments may be read on air).

LIVE Broadcast: Tuesday, Mar. 24, 2020 at 10:00 a.m. on APRN stations statewide.
LIVE Web stream: Click here to stream.

The interview transcribed below has been edited for clarity and length: 

The Anchorage School District learned recently that a staff member who works at Chugiak High School has tested positive for COVID-19. And the staff member lives with someone who works at King Tech High School. How is the district responding? What’s happening right now?

Deena Bishop: The test was confirmed over the weekend and this particular person was traveling so it was an out of state issue, we believe, not a transmission. But, anyone that was in the building last week, we’re asking them to self isolate, and just keep each other healthy. We are literally going through every surface, every area and spraying disinfectant. We’re paying attention to information about the virus being able to live on different surfaces, but it should be just fine. We’re following the CDC guidelines and continuing on our work. 

How are you building out your plan for distance education and where are you with that currently?

Beth Lougee: We are focusing on a two week block at a time. And our focus right now is making connections with our students, helping students re-establish their routines, and then assessing the needs of our students in our families [to find out] if they have computer devices and if they have internet service. We’re working with GCI and AT&T and just making sure that right now we’re getting each household up and running so that we can start delivering online instruction by no later than after April 3rd.

Bishop: We do have some resources online right now for families to look at and to practice. For example, some of them are fun activities that they’re actually learning for elementary school and kids can engage them electronically and teachers can give feedback about their work and have kids kind of get used to that. And for parents, we’ve set up schedules that parents can use set up a home schedule.

All students, through their ASD accounts, now have a zoom video-conferencing account that we assign to them. And they’re all ready to go through our servers so that it’s safe internet access. We purchased hundreds of Wi-Fi spots that are expected to get in on March 27th. 

We have over 20,000 Chromebooks that we are cleaning right now, and we’re thinking now about the sites in which we would deploy them. We’re setting seniors up first, they’re going to have first access and get on with it because we know graduation and AP courses, other courses that they need to get into colleges – they’re all thinking about that right now. 

If you don’t have access, or you’re not comfortable with it just yet, parents that would rather something be at the kitchen table other than a computer, those paper and pencil materials are also being designed and ready to deploy on our school buses. 

We do not want our teachers, our kids or our parents anxious about academics. The whole nation is in this together, we want you to be able to just learn something new and be able to follow through.

How are you looking at the logistics of handling paper materials and how to safely get those to students?

Beth Lougee: We are working with our district nurse, and looking at all the health precautions too, of handling all the different packets. We might need to put them in plastic bags, sanitizing on one end, and then sanitize them when we receive them back. Let them sit for 72 hours before they’re opened back up and then just keep them in a rotation.

How are schools thinking about how they can assist students with special needs, that are no longer able to come into classrooms or that can no longer have that personal assistance that they often need to help them continue with their education?

Bishop: We are figuring those things out and we know that we’re going to have to be creative there. Presently, we do have our nursing staff, doing home visits with students that are medically fragile, as some of our special education students are, and supporting the family. But we’re literally having to reassess every Individual Education Program (IEP) to look at how this would look in a different setting. What can be done and what can’t? And if it couldn’t be done at this time, we would have to adjust the IEP in conjunction with the parents. And then we’re already preparing with the understanding that an extended school year might occur. 

Lougee: We’re following the lead of what Anchorage is doing. If they didn’t already have a paraprofessional who was providing services under their direction, we’re pairing students up with some of our other paraprofessionals and other areas to keep everybody working and maybe going into the home to deliver the exercises that need to be done or different tasks. And then we’re also working to start recording and using devices in the home, so that some of these services can be provided in a recording-type situation. And then we’re trying to also look at how we continue. Some of our kids were in the middle of being tested to see if they qualify for special education. So our team of people are working right now to continue that going through phone conferences. 

What resources are in place for students who may be in an unhealthy home such as environments with domestic violence, substance abuse, or abuse?

Bishop: If you look at the statistics in Alaska we do have a lot of unhealthy habits as well as homes and and behaviors going on. So, I just want to let everyone know that teachers continue to and will always be reporters and have that statutory requirement to really understand and share any kind of abuse and neglect that they see. We will continue to support teachers and that ability to be able to report anything that just doesn’t seem right. We’re going to continue vigilance on that. 

We are working with our partners around the city, a lot of nonprofits. Including providing food and working to support children in transition, or students without homes, to get them into shelters. We’re able to solve those problems one by one, but there isn’t an easy answer to it. There isn’t something that is a catch all but as a community, we need to continue to look out for each other, and especially our young people.

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Lougee: First and foremost we have asked our teachers number one to make contact with each of their students. We’re in the process of setting up a paraprofessional team to be an assistant line for parents or students to call into that they can then turn information over to a principal who can then call out to our community partners. 

Do you anticipate that you will extend the school year into the month of June?

Bishop: In those extenuating circumstances where kids need courses for moving on to jobs, college, needing more credits for graduation, or with individualized education plans, we will continue the summer schools we already have in some of our schools. But as far as district-wide right now, we are focusing on making every day count right now.

What’s the the larger plan for potentially extending the year or making those days up? Is there going to be some sort of a waiver? And what are your thoughts about testing?

Bishop: Let’s start with testing. Our state is putting in a waiver to have a different plan with us, but I don’t know if that will just be to use last year scores carried over for the different levels of schools, or what that would look like. But certainly, if we can’t get together, and we can’t be in groups of larger than ten or not within six foot, it’s going to be very difficult in different places to assess kids. I think that the assessments are there to see what learning has happened and where kids are and there are other venues to be able to do that. So I’m confident that we’ll figure that out.

Regarding the school term, schooling is actually set in law at the state level. Statutory requirements in the state of Alaska are for students to actually have 170 contact days and up to 10 additional days can be substituted for in-service days. The majority of kids will be able to continue their learning and learn those outcomes that we expect to and be productive citizens. We’re paying attention to students and their needs, and continuing that learning. I think many are going to be just fine. For those that are not, we’re setting up summer schools. If they struggle a little more or need a little bit more one on one; or some families just don’t want internet in their homes, they find it as a distraction, or maybe don’t want it there for cultural reasons. Sometimes it’s just a choice. Whether it’s online, or paper and pencil packets and books distance delivery where we’re mailing things back and forth or picking them up, we’re meeting families where they are. 

The thing is, is if we’re expecting teachers and everyone to work during the summer when they usually don’t get paid, without some additional revenue, it’s going to be a problem. There would need to be a lot more influx of revenue to keep people on for months and months so that’s why it’s so important to make everyday matter right now. 

Lougee: We’re also looking ahead. In our community we already have an established summer program and extended school year for our students with special needs. Our anticipation is higher numbers during the summer, not because our calendar has been extended, but because of material that has been missed. Our teachers want to be able to assess that and make sure that our students are also prepared to go into next year. So it’s just a continuation of a revolving door of planning and looking at every option available.

What if parents simply just don’t feel like they can manage to facilitate this distance learning along with working from home. It’s a big ask.

Lougee: I think that’s where it comes down to starting out with a whole plan and then we have to have that communication with our parents. If that is the situation, where they do feel overwhelmed? What can we deliver? How can we help that?

If we have people who can safely connect with that student, that may be an option, but I can’t stress enough, it’s really going to be based on individual learning plans for all of our students and families.

This is a very stressful time for parents. Dr. Lubitsh-White, how are you advising parents and other child caregivers about keeping kids focused and learning and active? What can they do to keep that stress from seeping into the interactions they have with their children? 

Lubitsh-White: The first thing is understanding that some level of stress is unavoidable, and don’t try and fight it because it’s useless. The other thing that I can recommend across the board, is having structure and creating the structure with the kids depending on the level they can participate. Also, if there is more than one parent or more than one adult in the home, the adults [should] check in with each other before they address the children. They can get on the same page, give each other feedback on how regulated they are and how relaxed they are. Because sometimes, we don’t know we’re stressed. So they need to present a united front.

Read more coronavirus coverage from Alaska Public Media

How can people stay connected during this period of social-distancing and self-isolation?

Lubitsh-White: First, if there is the technology to do it, contact with family members through zoom or other online software, that is very, very helpful. If that is not available, then letters. If the kids can write, they can write themselves or you can help them write letters and get correspondence back. Get on the phone. Any way to connect now is really crucial.

How can we talk to kids about what’s going on right now? 

Lubitsh-White: First, follow the questions. Don’t assume that they’re stressed necessarily. As humans we tend to project our emotions on to others. So we might assume that the child is stressed about one thing but it’s really not what they’re stressed about. While at family dinner, you could have a jar where kids can write questions and maybe you open the question and everybody answers according to their understanding. The second thing is trying to get to the root of what the kid’s concern is because they may say something but it can be a mask for something else. 

We’re early in this process. What advice do you have for both parents and school officials to be watching for signs of stress and how to best help out in this situation?

Lubitsh-White: We have to take it a day at a time. One of the big challenges is to deal with the unknown. How do we, as a system as teachers, as parents deal with the fact that we really do not know? So I’m hoping that we will meet together, people will reach out from different domains, and sit together and begin brainstorming and putting things in place.

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Lori Townsend is the News Director for the Alaska Public Radio Network. She got her start in broadcasting at the age of 11 as the park announcer of the fast pitch baseball games in Deer Park, Wisconsin. She has worked in print and broadcast journalism for more than 24 years. She was the co-founder and former Editor of Northern Aspects, a magazine featuring northern Wisconsin writers and artists. She worked for 7 years at tribal station WOJB on the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibway Reservation in Wisconsin, first as an on-air programmer and special projects producer and eventually News Director. In 1997 she co-hosted a continuing Saturday afternoon public affairs talk program on station KSTP in St. Paul, Minnesota. Radio brought her to Alaska where she worked as a broadcast trainer for Native fellowship students at Koahnic Broadcasting. Following her work there, she helped co-found the non-profit broadcast company Native Voice Communications. NVC created the award-winning Independent Native News as well as producing many other documentaries and productions. Townsend was NVC’s technical trainer and assistant producer of INN. Through her freelance work, she has produced news and feature stories nationally and internationally for Independent Native News, National Native News, NPR , Pacifica, Monitor Radio, Radio Netherlands and AIROS. Her print work and interviews have been published in News from Indian Country, Yakama Nation Review and other publications. Ms. Townsend has also worked as a broadcast trainer for the Native American Journalist’s Association and with NPR’s Doug Mitchell and as a freelance editor. Townsend is the recipient of numerous awards for her work from the Alaska Press Club, the Native American Journalists Association and a gold and a silver reel award from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. Townsend was the recipient of a Fellowship at the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting in Rhode Island as well as a fellowship at the Knight Digital Media Center in Berkeley. She is an avid reader, a rabid gardener and counts water skiing, training horses, diving and a welding certification among her past and current interests. ltownsend (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  |  907.550.8452 | About Lori