Unalaska students and staff began their holiday break Monday and are scheduled to begin the new semester on Jan. 4. But what that semester will look like and whether or not students will return to their classrooms next month is still undecided.
After the City of Unalaska moved into the high coronavirus risk threshold in late November due to potential widespread exposure of the community to the virus, school staff began home-based instruction and the district closed to the public.
Meanwhile, in accordance with the district's updated Smart Start 2020 plan, a limited number of students, such as those with special learning needs who are on individualized education plans, were allowed in the schools.
Superintendent John Conwell said the administration has made tentative plans to return to in-person learning at the start of the upcoming semester, but those plans all depend on what coronavirus risk level the city is at when the semester begins.
"The [Smart Start 2020] plan states, if possible, invite students who have large [learning] gaps into the school to provide small group instruction and provide additional face-to-face learning opportunities for students who are struggling with essential concepts," Conwell said. "If widespread exposure to COVID-19 is evaded and the city moves from the high risk to the medium risk threshold prior to the first day of second semester, administration recommends a return to the in-person school models similar to what was in place prior to Dec. 1."
Even if the city remains at the high coronavirus risk level, school administration recommends developing a plan for limited in-person instruction to provide additional options for students and families, according to Conwell. He said that planning for a return-to-school approach would take into account many factors, including "the level of community spread, level of exposure to the school community, individual risk factors of students, teachers, and staff members, and management of teacher workload."
While it remains unclear what class schedules will look like or which age groups will be allowed to return if the district resumes in-person operations under the high risk scenario, Conwell said that the administration intends to have three planning and preparation days for teachers on Jan. 4, 5 and 6, before the semester begins for students. Alternatively, if the community returns to the medium risk level, students will return to school and follow COVID-19 safety protocols.
Despite the added preparation, fourth grade teacher Mary Heimes said she's concerned about the additional workload of maintaining a hybrid teaching format, which could require in-person classes for some students and remote learning for others simultaneously.
"I'm just trying to figure out how to meet the needs of all my students if for some of the days I have some in the classroom, then what happens to my students that are at home for those days?" said Heimes at a school board meeting on Wednesday. "Currently, I am talking to them all day long, so I just want us to remain really mindful of how that is going to work logistically."
And Heimes is not the only staff member worried about finding time to prepare.
Teacher and parent Amy Purevsuren said at the meeting last week that while much of the burden falls to the students, staff, and families to come up with solutions for continuing learning during the pandemic, the community is also responsible for the mental and social wellbeing of students.
"I don't know what it's going to take," Purevsuren said. "I agree that everything we can do to bring kids together would be great, but I think that that's a really in-depth conversation, and I think that we need to see more research. And I think that we should maybe also explore what the community is willing to do as far as working with small groups, taking them on field trips, doing outdoor things."
While it has not made any official plans yet, the school board has suggested holding a special meeting to continue discussing distance-based learning strategies before the start of the new term.
In the meantime, Conwell said that administration is consulting with officials at the Iliuliuk Family and Health Services clinic and the Emergency Operations Center to make decisions for the upcoming semester, and is working to improve communication with staff and families.