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'You Have To Push Yourself In These Times:' Unalaska's Schools Transition To Home-Based Education

Courtesy of Unalaska City School District

A Monday morning stroll through Unalaska’s elementary and high school hallways reverberates with an unnerving and overwhelming silence. The expected babble and laughter of students squeezing in final bits of a hurried conversation, the low and frantic scribbling of last night’s calculus homework, and the metallic harmonies of lockers tolling shut exists in a time that seems far removed from the now dark, empty vestibules.


As Unalaska's schools transition into their second week of home-based education, following the statewide closure of  Alaska’s public and private schools amid coronavirus concerns, much of the vivacity and brightness normally found enlivening the hallways has seemingly vanished. However, to say that vitality has completely evaporated would be a grim oversight. It seems, instead, that the energy has been hidden in plain sight: reformatted, obscured, and freshly wardrobed. 

Rather than having face-to-face discussions with their students about the requirements of an upcoming assignment or chatting idly about a new television series they are bingeing, faculty and staff remain isolated inside their empty classrooms or workspaces at home, writing elaborate emails, returning missed calls and voicemails, and compiling work packets to send home to their students.


 “The big transition that I’m seeing is that I feel like there is an expansion of time and it’s just a question of getting adjusted to what you do with that time,” said Shawna Rudio, an English teacher at Unalaska City High School, reflecting on the ways she is addressing the shift of work and energy during this time of continuous change. “You’re taking that energy that you normally would use being in the classroom, interacting with the kids, and you’re dispersing it in different ways.”


Teachers as well as students, parents, and staff are learning to revise their usual habits. A major part of that process has become learning how to adapt. As one attempt fails, educators, students, and parents have to recognize that failure and begin working on solutions. In some cases, educators are having to completely relearn what they’ve been taught and reevaluate the  insight they’ve gained from years of experience.


Rachel Peter—who teaches fifth and sixth grade reading and science—articulated some of the uncertainties of working in education at this time.


“It’s been a lot of just controlled chaos,” said Peter. “How I’ve been taught how to teach and how I’ve been teaching for years is now just completely turned upside down. You’re taught how to interact with kids and how to reach kids, and now you can’t see kids. It’s just trying to figure out how to best help them and how to best teach them, but also how to not overwhelm them.”


For many faculty and staff members, the simple act of getting in contact with their students has proven to be a major hurdle. 

“Fifty percent of the students, I’d say, I’ve either been able to get in contact with or they have responded to me,” said high school social studies teacher Ryan Humphrey, speaking about the district’s first week of home-based education. “The first assignment for their first day was to actually get in contact with me. So about fifty percent of the students have failed on that so far.” But Humphrey remained positive, acknowledging that most of his students would likely get in contact with him by the end of the week.


Humphrey’s optimism is common among the teachers and staff at the school. Several have hit bumpy roads when contacting their students. However, due to their efforts and unique methods of reaching out to students and parents, all but about 25 packets were picked up on Thursday, according to Unalaska City School District Superintendent John Conwell.


Like Humphrey, several teachers are similarly adapting assignments to fit the unique parameters of distance education. Reise Wayner, the school’s shop teacher, faces a particularly challenging task in finding ways for students to fulfill the requirements of applied learning and sometimes hazardous work. In order to keep students safe, while still working to help them meet requirements, Wayner gave his students a work log and space for creative expression. 

“They have to do five hours of work per week,” said Wayner. “And work is chores, helping out around the house, building stuff for their parents, building stuff for others. One of my students has been building desks for students that don’t have workplaces at home.”


Many students, educators, and parents are reconceptualizing what their work will look like in the coming weeks, and that also means reevaluating where home and work life boundaries lie. Addressing these kinds of predicaments is challenging, especially for children, but as both Wayner and his student suggest—by way of this creative assignment—Unalaskans can reach out and work together to solve these unanticipated needs.


While uncertainty looms over the next steps teachers, staff, and students will be making, high school senior Gilmar Tapaoan remains practical but positive about his current home-based education. 

“I feel like I can learn more,” said Tapaoan. “You have to push yourself in these times. When you’re at home, this is your space. You want to relax. You want to be lazy, but you have the materials you need to learn about your homework…You can always contact your teachers via email or text or call them and ask them questions. But I think it’s not the same as when they’re there with you. I think it’ll have its ups and downs.”


The road ahead looks jarring for everyone involved in distance education, but like Tapaoan, Peter keeps her chin up, while recognizing the importance of having meaningful interactions with her students. 

“Right now, I’m trying to set up a time to call them once a week and just talk and reach out, and talk about homework, but also how are you feeling?” said Peter. “Are you feeling overwhelmed? Do you need more work to keep you busy? Do you need less work, more help? How’s it been? Are you following the rules?” 

So far, Peter said no students have taken up her offer for extra work, but she imagines some parents might be interested.


While hard copy packets are still being given out to students in order to provide no-tech home-based education, the district is working with local internet provider OptimERA to provide internet and tech-based education to as many students as possible. 

“We’re working through some of the connectivity issues with the internet service providers,” said Conwell. “OptimERA has offered free internet service now to students, teachers, and college students. It’s going to be a game changer for many folks out in the community.” 


Despite these added efforts by OptimERA and the school district to reach more students, a significant number of families still have no means of accessing the internet. 

Credit Hope McKenney/KUCB
Homework can be dropped off anytime at the drop box outside Unalaska's high school.

“In our survey, we had 74 families report no internet service,” said Conwell. “132 reported that they did have some sort of internet connection. That could range from Telalaska, OptimERA, or a GCI LTE connection through their cell phone. We’re still trying to get replies from 54 families who either didn’t reply to the survey, there were language barriers, or they were out of town.”


As the district moves through its second week of home-based education and another week of uncertainty, self-proclaimed “old-school English teacher”—Shawna Rudio—advises to take stock in Samuel Beckett’s words: “'I can’t go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on’—That’s what we’re going to do, climb back up the mountain.”


Unalaska’s schools are still preparing packets for students with homework and materials. These can be picked up on Thursday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the high school on the fifth and sixth grade end, near the pool. Homework can be dropped off anytime at the drop box located out front.


Hailing from Southwest Washington, Maggie moved to Unalaska in 2019. She's dabbled in independent print journalism in Oregon and completed her Master of Arts in English Studies at Western Washington University — where she also taught Rhetoric and Composition courses.
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