COVID-19 triggers alarming high school failure rates in Unalaska

Thirty percent of all high school students are failing at least one class, according to High School Principal Jim Wilson. (Maggie Nelson/KUCB)

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to hamper in-person learning in Unalaska, nearly a third of the island’s high school population is failing at least one class, according to school officials. And some seniors could be at risk of not graduating.

The Unalaska City School District is normally a top performer. Last year, the district had a 97 percent graduation rate. But this year, district officials said they’re alarmed at the number of high schoolers failing classes, as they learn under a hybrid model that limits their time in classrooms.  

“Distance education is just very difficult and is proving even more challenging for some of our most at-risk students,” school principal Jim Wilson said. “Most students are far more successful when in-person, and the current pandemic has created challenges that we are still working to overcome.”

The district is delivering classes through a hybrid model: small cohorts of students are able to attend in-person classes in the afternoon. But only 32 percent of tenth through twelfth graders are participating in in-person learning, said Superintendent John Conwell.

“We are worried about those students who have just become sort of disengaged,” he said. “So we are reaching out. I know Mr. Wilson and the school counselor are personally calling students and parents and trying to reconnect and find out what we can do to get those students to reengage with their learning.”

About 10 to 15 high schoolers are coming in before in-person afternoon classes for extra help, according to Conwell. Teachers are reaching out to individual students, preparing videos and hosting conference calls to engage and support them. 

But despite the added effort, many high schoolers are choosing to stay at home, helping with younger family members, or working in the afternoons, rather than returning to their classrooms. 

High school junior Sam Ahsan, who is working part-time as a clerk at Safeway, said the amount of homework combined with helping out at home — even without his work schedule — can be overwhelming.

“I think that the teachers think that since we’re at home, we have so much time to do all this homework,” said Ahsan. “But they don’t know that we have a life outside of school.”

Superintendent Conwell said he knows remote education is tough for students, teachers and families. While things like dropped calls and interruptions at home make communicating difficult, he said staff and administration are proactively reaching out to struggling students, in hopes of helping them get their grades up before the school year ends.

“It looks like we will have 75 to 80 percent of our school employees fully vaccinated (against COVID-19) by spring break,” said Conwell. “So it’s my hope that as the vaccines roll out, as more and more folks in the community get vaccinated, that maybe we can do more in-person instruction through the end of the school year.” 

While the district may see a lower graduation rate this year, the exact number of graduating seniors will come down to specifics, like each student’s number of credits and their overall grade point average, according to Conwell.

He added several other superintendents have said they are facing similar issues, and he doesn’t believe a lower graduation rate will have an impact on the district’s standing.