After more than half of Bethel students fail their classes, some parents urge reopening schools

Empty swings in front of a school on a winter day
The playground at the Gladys Jung Elementary School on March 16, 2019. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

Parents in the Bethel region are increasingly distressed about their childrens’ education after more than half of students failed their classes last semester, according to a report from the Lower Kuskokwim School District.

Parents called in to the Jan. 27 school board meeting pleading for the district to reopen schools to students despite the pandemic.

“I was shocked, during the school reports, about the high numbers of students that are not engaging at all in school,” said Megan Newport, parent of a student at Ayaprun Elitnaurvik.

She was one of four Bethel parents who called into LKSD’s board meeting and urged the district to reopen schools. Two parents called in cautioning against a rush to do so.

The report shows Bethel high schoolers failed 59% of their first semester classes for 2020-21. For K-8 students, 36% to 52% of students didn’t turn in enough work to receive a grade — that’s what Newport meant by “not engaging.”

Grades in villages looked a little better, but the rate of failed classes was still alarming.

“Even the most cursory review of the current data on attendance, no basis grading, and student failure rates provides overwhelming proof that LKSD is currently in the midst of an unprecedented educational crisis,” Newport said.

LKSD has acknowledged the problem, and is trying to fix it. Assistant Superintendent Ed Pekar said the district is forming a committee of principals, teachers and students, and has hired consultants and researchers all tasked with identifying how to re-engage students who have tuned out of school during the pandemic.

Superintendent Kimberly Hankins hopes the intranet — which functions as a limited internet — will also improve remote learning. But more than halfway through the school year, many teachers and students are still struggling to connect to and use the intranet. Norman Ayagalria, a teacher in Napakiak, said given the problems with the intranet, he’d rather not use it at all.

“In Napakiak and some of the villages, intranet has not been working,” Ayagalria said. “I’m not going to be spending some time on something that is not consistently working. I’d rather have iPads and paper and pencil.”

Several parents at the Jan. 27 meeting brought up an article by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researchers, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on Jan. 26. They wrote it would be safe to reopen schools as long as precautions are taken, since “there has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.”

But according to Dr. Ellen Hodges, chief of staff for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation, that’s not true for the Y-K Delta.

“In our region, schools in more than one community have been a significant source of seeding an entire village with cases, causing outbreaks of hundreds and a handful of deaths,” Hodges said.

The Y-K Delta has also consistently had one of the highest COVID-19 case rates in the nation.

YKHC recommends schools not resume in-person classes until three conditions are met: All cases in a community are linked to travel, there are fewer than 25 new cases a week, and less than 3% of COVID tests come back positive.

The region is a long way away from hitting those numbers. Over the last week, YKHC announced 242 new cases. Around 12% to 15% of tests have been coming back positive.

To get to the point where schools can reopen, Hodges said as many people as possible need to get vaccinated.

“We can’t vaccinate our children, so we have to surround them in a cocoon of people who have been vaccinated,” Hodges said.

Though the vaccines are not approved for people under 16, they’re available right now to everyone else in the region. As of Jan. 27, Hodges said YKHC had vaccinated 5,793 people — more than 20% of the region’s population — and 1,842 people had received both doses.

Within a few months, every eligible person in the region who wants the vaccine will likely have had the opportunity to receive the two required doses. At that point, Bethel parent and LKSD social worker Ryan Wheeler said schools should not stay closed.

“If people have chosen not to be vaccinated, they’re accepting the risk that comes with living in a time where COVID is a threat to them and their physical health,” Wheeler said.

The school board didn’t take any action on when to resume in-person classes. Board member Hugh Dyment, who works at the Bethel jail where there has been a huge COVID-19 outbreak, said it was not yet time.

“If you asked me to vote on opening Bethel schools right now, I’d say no,” Dyment said. “Because I’m familiar with what’s happening medically, and I know how quickly something can spread. I’ve seen it happen.”

LKSD has a work session scheduled for Feb. 8, when board members will keep discussing the reopening of schools. Whenever that turns out to be, sports will come back, too: Board members voted to allow practice as soon as students are back in classrooms. However, local advisory school boards could still choose to override that decision.