Rural schools struggle to move online when promised internet access isn’t available

Homework packets were available for parents to pick up at Gladys Jung Elementary School on March 18, 2020.
(KATIE BASILE/KYUK)

Many parents and students in the Lower Kuskokwim School District are now familiar with paper work packets substituting for classroom teachers.

At LKSD’s last board meeting, one member blasted the work packets for being demotivating. Superintendent Dan Walker agrees with those complaints, but says that it’s hard when the most logical alternative, online learning, is not an option.

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At the LKSD board meeting on April 2, board members thanked teachers for continuing to educate kids during school closures. However, some board members, like former teacher Michael Husa, had harsh words for the paper packets of work that have replaced instruction for many students.

“We’re destroying young men and women, and their ability and their desire to want to be a part of school,” Husa said.

He said that his granddaughter, who received a month’s worth of paper work packets, had a meltdown.

“She’s 11 years old. She told me she was ready to drop out because she was tired of it,” Husa said.

Superintendent Dan Walker thanked Husa for his comments, and said that he sympathized with the kids overwhelmed and unmotivated by packets.  

“I get it, totally,” Walker said.

Walker explained that packets are useful for teachers to have material they can grade. That may become less necessary after the school board voted to make all credit-bearing classes “pass/fail” this semester on April 2. Walker agreed that paper packets are not the best way to teach.

“It’s really hard in this mode of delivery to provide new instruction, new concepts, new things like that,” Walker said.

The Alaska Department of Education and Early Development tried to help. On March 31, it announced the Alaska Statewide Virtual School, where students can access coursework online. Walker says that would be useful if students could get online.

“It’s just a showstopper for us. It’s a non-starter,” Walker said. “We can’t access it except on an incredibly limited basis.”

In rural Alaska, many homes don’t have internet access. A few weeks ago, regional internet service provider GCI announced that it would offer free internet to all K-12 students, but Walker said that offer has fallen short.

“None of us were prepared for this, and neither was GCI,” Walker said. “And the challenge that we’re finding right now is that GCI has run out of all of their equipment.”

He said that households have not been able to obtain a cable modem to set up their free internet.

“There’s a huge huge digital divide still in rural America, and certainly in rural Alaska,” Walker said. “Frankly, the government needs to step in and encourage the build-out of the infrastructure so we’re not caught in these situations.”

Still, the superintendent said that he has been heartened to see some of the creative solutions teachers are using. At one school, he said that teachers are making videos of themselves reading the same book together from their individual homes.

“That had these teachers acting out the characters in the book,” Walker said.

For students without internet, Walker said that the teachers used Bluetooth to drop the videos directly onto students’ computers. 

“As we encourage people to really look at project-based sorts of activities for kids, I think we’ll get better,” Walker said.

He said that many teachers have already moved to project-based learning. Walker estimated that two weeks ago, 75 percent of teachers were using packets. Now, he thinks it’s moved closer to 50/50, packets versus project-based learning. He said that the way to shift the numbers further is to keep highlighting the successful ways that teachers are circumventing classrooms to reach their students.