The Unalaska City School Board has approved an agreement with local service provider TelAlaska to provide limited remote learning services for students and staff in the district.
Superintendent John Conwell said that he is very glad that the schools are still open to students and admires the work he is seeing in classrooms. However, he said this service plan would better prepare teachers and students should schools shift to home-based learning again, if the city moves into the high-risk threshold due to community spread of the coronavirus.
According to Conwell, the plan — which was approved by board members last week— will expand on the internet contract the district currently has with the TelAlaska.
"We wanted a solution that would incorporate what we already have in place with our network and all the protections," said Conwell. "And so we believe that this is a good solution. It's accomplished by installing access points in students' [landline] phones, through the copper wiring that phone lines use. So most homes and apartments in Unalaska have copper phone lines, even if the family doesn't have a landline."
And while this plan will act as a foundation for providing students with remote internet access, Conwell said it's just a start.
"It's not going to cover everybody," he said. "There's possibly some homes that we won't be able to access, but this is one of the building blocks that we're using to incrementally expand the reach of our school computer network."
Conwell said the district is hoping to have the project well underway by Thanksgiving or Christmas. That would likely involve installing about 200 to 240 access points in homes across the island, about 20 of which have already been installed. And in some homes, like certain apartments or bunkhouses, households may be able to share an access point.
At $50 per connection, Conwell projects it will cost the district about $10,000, but that's just a rough estimate, he said.
"Right now we don't even have the actual physical addresses of all of our students," said Conwell. "Living in a small town like this, sometimes [families] just say they live on Haystack, but we don't know where on Haystack. So we're still trying to get actual physical addresses."
Conwell said there will also be a recurring cost of $25 per month, per household, which the district will be paying.
Due to bandwidth capacity on the island, the access points will not have synchronous video conferencing capabilities. But they will allow teachers and students to transfer files, such as pre-recorded videos.
According to Conwell, only school-issued devices— such as laptops that students can check out and take home— will have access to certain pre-approved websites— like Google Classroom— through the TelAlaska access points.
Also at its meeting, the school board swore in two newly-elected board members: newcomer Jolene Longo and returning board member Fernando Barrera, who was also reelected as school board president during the meeting.
Denise Rankin was also interviewed and appointed to fill seat D, which was recently vacated by Josh Good.
At the meeting, Conwell also presented the COVID-19 Advisory Committee's feedback regarding the upcoming winter break. Conwell said a survey was administered to students and staff to plan for the upcoming holidays and the island's required two-week travel quarantine.
"The administration feels like we can accommodate folks that need to travel or want to travel out during the winter break and need to quarantine when they get back," said Conwell. "And it looks like about 85 percent of our staff and students and their family are planning to just stay put. We'd like to have them in school if we can because there's no sense to close because 15 percent are leaving."
While Conwell said the administration is optimistic about accommodating that small, approximate percentage of families and staff who plan to travel, board members expressed concern about the upcoming break, and whether or not people would observe the travel quarantine. But Conwell said the committee will continue to discuss the topic at its next meeting on Nov. 11, and will look to the school board if further deliberation is needed.
Correction: a previous version of this article stated that Conwell said that the COVID-19 Advisory Committee felt optimistic about accomadating travel. Conwell clarified that he was speaking about the school administration and not speaking for the committee.