Digital divide interrupts education on the Lower Kuskokwim

A white woman in a white blazer sits at a child's desk on a laptop in a classroom
Second grade teacher Jenna Nadine works in her empty classroom on the first day of school at Mikelnguut Elitnaurviat. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

The Lower Kuskokwim School District hoped to start the 2020-21 school year with a fully functional intranet. The intranet, which functions as a limited internet, was supposed to make remote learning better. But as the spring semester starts, many students still aren’t using the system. 

At this point, every LKSD school has received the necessary hardware for the intranet, but that doesn’t mean every student has access. Atmautluak was one of the first villages to get the intranet working in some homes in early November, but Jeffrey Behselich, a science teacher there, said about a quarter of homes in the community are still not connected.

“It’s a slow process because the actual hardware that families need to install on their home, it’s a ‘self-install’ because of COVID, because of health mandates,” Behselich said.

COVID-19 lockdowns have left students and their families navigating the new technology on their own. Behselich said setting up the hardware was only half the battle. Teachers then had to learn the new software and teach it to their students, all remotely.

“How to log on, how to navigate it, knowing where to click, knowing which week you’re on, how to access the content. All of that,” Behselich said.

While the intranet was delayed for months, many schools continued to rely on paper packets. That caused some students to withdraw from school completely. 

“I had a lot of students who just weren’t turning anything in,” said Samantha Enoch, a language arts teacher in Nunapitchuk. “I had students who, they were turning things in, but they were turning them in blank. I think some of them feel like they’re kind of on an island by themselves, and going through this alone. Just being handed paper packets and told to go for it. That is a pretty lonely, hard feeling to be in.”

Tatyana Avugiak, a senior in Chefornak, said that for a time, she was one of those students who lost motivation to turn in assignments.

“The main thing that’s challenging for me is having no teachers by our side, and not going to the school to learn where we could focus more,” Avugiak said.

Behselich’s hope is that, with the intranet and Zoom, students who withdrew from school will re-engage. 

“I think the biggest thing is feeling connected,” Behselich said. “Being able to Zoom, just being able to see another person’s face, I think that’s gonna really bring the students back in.” 

That hasn’t been the case yet. Only some teachers were able to try Zoom during the fall semester, and Assistant Superintendent Ed Pekar said the intranet bandwidth likely won’t allow an entire class of students onto Zoom all at once.

The intranet also features a program called Moodle, which allows students to access videos and class content, message teachers, and turn in homework. Enoch said teachers found more success with Moodle than Zoom, but it still has its growing pains.

“I wouldn’t say I’ve talked to anyone who loves it at this point, but they’re slowly coming around to it,” Enoch said. “We’re really hoping to get to them in the second semester for sure.”

Although teachers are optimistic that the intranet will get better next semester, it is unlikely to completely reverse the effects of a crippled school year. Susie Nick, a teacher in Atmautluak, said that’s a reality everyone will just have to accept.

“We’re in a situation that we really can’t control,” Nick said. “I guess, nationwide, that we would expect our students to not be at grade level.” 

School starts back on Jan. 11. LKSD will begin the semester remotely. 

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