Typically, many staff members at Unalaska's schools travel off island during the district's winter vacation. But the pandemic and local quarantine mandates are shaping a unique holiday break for many staff members this year.
This year, the number of staff members at Unalaska's junior high and high school who are planning to travel off island is significantly lower than normal, according to junior high and high school principal Jim Wilson.
"Most years, we would have three to four folks out on personal leave, and then another eight to 10 staff members might be hopping on the plane the last day of school," said Wilson. "So in talking to our entire staff, not just teachers, I would say that that number is lower than in past years."
When Wilson spoke with staff, he said that there were only four teachers in the building who are considering leaving the island for the upcoming holiday break.
In an isolated community like Unalaska — where many teachers move from other areas and most people have close family in other parts of the country — the holidays are often a quiet time on the island.
"Due to the nature of where we live, we have folks with families that may have sort of a finite window of time that they can go off island to take vacations and to visit family, and it's expensive to get off island," said UCSD Superintendent John Conwell. "And to get someplace, we understand that you don't want to spend a large amount of money just to go for a few days, and folks sometimes want to go and maximize that vacation time."
Based on the responses the district received from a survey they did in October, about 85 percent of families and staff are planning to stay put over the winter break, according to Conwell.
High School English teacher Jacob Collins-Wilson said he and his wife plan to leave the island a week before the winter vacation officially begins and return to quarantine during the two-week school break.
"If we didn't have to quarantine, I probably wouldn't take any time off because I don't like missing class — I like teaching," said Collins-Wilson. "But we definitely would have been gone all break and come back January second or third, or something like that."
By leaving the week before break and only leaving for seven days, Collins-Wilson said he can be back on the island for the start of the semester.
While the shortened vacation timeline and missing an entire week of classes isn't ideal, he said it's worth it to get a break from routine, and to spend some time out of the tundra and among trees.
"Last year, we didn't leave at all all year," said Collins-Wilson. "And it was a little bit too much time without trees. So I figured we'd get out during the worst part [of the year] and have trees and maybe more sunshine, and then we'll be fine."
While many teachers are just planning to stay put this year, not all are staying on island because of the island's 14-day quarantine mandate. According to Amy Purevseren, a high school English and ELL teacher, her family is staying for a number of reasons.
"We generally like to go out at Christmas and visit family and go skiing," she said. "But we're planning on staying here this year, not because of the quarantine, just because of the spread of COVID-19 in Alaska, and we just feel like we're in a safer place to stay here. And we don't want to put my parents at risk either."
Purevseren has been teaching in the district for about 12 years, and said she predicts things will look very different this holiday season for her family as well as others'.
For Reise Wayner, the district's career and technical education teacher, this will be his family's first Christmas celebrating alone, on the island. But he and his wife chose to stay mainly because of the island's lack of access to affordable and simple air travel.
"I think travel more than anything is a limiting factor, rather than quarantine or COVID," said Wayner. "Probably the influence that COVID has had is that my family's probably not going to be coming out, as they would before. But again, traveling is a big factor — with not having [Alaska Airlines] miles, it just makes it more cost prohibitive."
Despite the change in their usual holiday celebrations, he and his family plan to make the most of their vacation on the island, said Wayner.
"We've got surfboards coming in so maybe we'll go surfing and make fires on the beach," he said. "It's just nice to be able to enjoy time here."
While a limited number of staff are planning to leave during the break and quarantine the first two weeks of the semester, Principal Jim Wilson said the administration feels confident that they will have plenty of subs if they need to fill those spots.