On the remote Pribilof Island of St. Paul, the school year started off with roughly 25 percent of students doing home-based education, despite the fact that the school was open to students.
As the year has progressed, most of those students have returned. But like in many remote areas in Alaska, St. Paul remains on high alert because the effects of returning to distance-based education in the small community of just 397 people could be particularly devastating.
"Our community is very close," said St. Paul teacher Melissa Zacharof. "We have lots of community events. And generally, lots of ways to interact with each other on a regular basis. For example, we have a Community Art Center; we'd have pottery classes and paint nights; we have regular gatherings, whether it's for a meeting, or somebody's wedding, or another important family event — things like that. They have all pretty much had to shut down."
Zacharof teaches sixth through twelfth grade humanities in St. Paul and works with 23 students this school year. In total, there are about 50 school-aged children on the island. According to Zacharof, the school's always been a very welcoming place. But since the pandemic began, that hasn't been quite the same.
"There's a plexiglas barrier in front of our secretary," described Zacharof. "Out front, there are paraprofessionals and maintenance directors ushering kids inside and taking their temperatures one at a time. There aren't kids in the hallway. There aren't kids in the gym."
At first glance, the image Zacharof depicted doesn't seem much different from what's happening at other schools that also reopened to students amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But in such a remote community, disruptions of daily social interactions can be especially devastating.
But Zacharof said when the city restricted access to social gatherings and the school closed last March due to the pandemic, it wasn't the loss of the events or places so much that impacted the community.
"Those kinds of things have been — I don't want to say taken away — it's not that," reflected Zacharof. "It's just that that access that we have to each other, that we're used to, has definitely changed."
Most of the students in the Pribilof School District go to school in St. Paul. And classes are generally made up of about a dozen kids each. There are also about six students at the school on nearby St. George Island, which is a correspondence school of St. Paul.
Because St. George's population is so small and the island is so isolated, the majority of the students' work is done virtually — often through online learning systems such as Acellus — and monitored by a single staff member.
Pribilof School District Superintendent John Bruce said that both communities are working to keep the kids safe, and that the district has stepped down to four days of classes per week on St. Paul to allow extra cleaning this semester. He added that the island's remote location has thus far been a blessing.
"We haven't had COVID up here yet," said Bruce. "The downside to [the precautions] is for the kids — they've done very well, but they're not getting a full day's education."
With just six teachers on the island, he said the school has had to begin alternating students' schedules to lower class sizes. Half of the students attend their classes in the morning, and the other half, in the afternoon. And that leaves a lot more time with kids at home.
Teacher, parent, and general manager for the local radio station, Jill Fratis said the shortened school day has been challenging.
"Being a working parent and trying to balance and juggle the two, I'm not gonna lie, it's been really difficult," said Fratis. "And trying so hard to make sure that I am there fully — in all aspects of my life — is a learning process, but one day at a time is all I've got to say."
As the community has learned to adjust to the shifting schedules, she said she's been extremely grateful for everyone's flexibility, and especially for the school district's commitment to keeping students, staff, and families safe.
Fratis' enthusiastic praise to the city and district for working so hard to keep the students in school — even for just half a day — shows how meaningful in-person learning and interaction are to her.
She said that interaction is also important for the island as a whole, so much so, that she described last spring's transition to purely home-based learning as a "culture shock" for the community.
"Everyone knows each other by first, middle and last names, and everyone's a part of each other's lives every single day," said Fratis. "And then having to go from that to distance learning — just having the kids at home by themselves, not being able to have that connection, that in-person physical connection with your classmates and your teacher — it was something that took them a really long time to get used to."
St. Paul Island is currently in phase three of its Strategic Reentry Plan. Under that plan, all non-essential travel is banned, people returning to the island are required to quarantine for two weeks, and strict social distancing is required in public to protect everyone from infants to elders.
"There are multiple generations here — grandparents, kids and grandchildren on the island," said Fratis. "And we are the largest population of Unangan people in the world. And we want to protect that. It's very sacred to us. And I think that the community is doing an amazing job."
While to some those restrictions may seem harsh for a community with no confirmed cases of COVID-19, Fratis said the island and its community are worth protecting.