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'It's A Rollercoaster:' The Ups And Downs Of Education Amidst The COVID-19 Pandemic

Courtesy of Nayeli Ramirez

It's been nearly a year since Gov. Dunleavy closed public schools to help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus pandemic last spring. 

Since then, the Unalaska City School District has been bouncing back and forth between three different types of learning: home-based, in-person, and a combination of the two. And that 11-month juggling act has taken a toll on many of the island's teachers, parents, and students.


Kate Arduser is the wellness program manager with the Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska and the mother of two school-age children. And this last year of on and off remote education has been a learning process for both her and her family. 

Like many parents, Arduser said she has struggled while fumbling through working from home and simultaneously helping her two daughters with school.

"Sometimes those things I need to do for work make it so I don't notice the phone call when we're supposed to talk to the teacher," said Arduser. "And that puts me in a cycle of feeling like I am not doing the things that I'm expecting to do well. And then I have to take a deep breath, and remember to have a good attitude, and to do my best, and to hopefully help my children do their best."

Arduser's oldest daughter is in second grade and attends school in the afternoons Monday through Thursday for a couple of hours, through the district's hybrid learning model — where small cohorts of students attend classes four days a week. However, her younger daughter is not eligible for the hybrid format as she is only five years old and in pre-K, so she stays home all day with Arduser.

While she considers herself very lucky to be able to work from home while her kids participate in remote learning, she said it's been an emotional and mental challenge for them all.

When she has a good attitude, though, Arduser said she does believe that it is possible to successfully work from home while supporting her kids' education. But that positive perspective sometimes comes in waves.

"Not only is it a juggle, it's a rollercoaster," said Arduser. 

And for many families, that "rollercoaster" recently saw a few extra corkscrews, inclines and dives. 

Last week, the district had made tentative plans to return to full days of in-person learning as the city shifted into the medium coronavirus risk threshold. Those plans were quickly dashed though, when two new cases of community spread were reported and the city returned to the high risk level.

Nayeli Ramirez's son, Alexis, is in first grade. And when she told him he might be able to go back to school full time, she said he was overjoyed. 

As an only child, and with her working 12 to 14-hour days, home-based and hybrid learning has been really tough on Alexis.

"They get little [thumb drives] with videos from [their teacher] Mrs. McEldery telling them a story," said Ramirez. "He cried the first time he saw one. And I was like, 'why are you crying?' And he said, 'because I love it.'"


Sharon O'Malley teaches third grade at Eagle's View Elementary Achigaalux̂. And right now, while some of her students have returned for afternoon in-person classes, she is one of just a few Unalaska teachers who have chosen to work from home. 

O'Malley said she has a great substitute teacher in her classroom who works with the kids, while she Zooms in remotely. And while she said she prefers the hybrid model to fully home-based learning, her days have been long and exhausting.

"It's the kind of work that you can't just do it in one night," said O'Malley. "You can't go in and say, 'oh, I'm going to get everything ready for all my students tonight.' It's really time consuming."

O'Malley recognized that there are many limitations to remote education. While she has had to eliminate certain things from her curriculum and while students are moving through material more slowly than they have in years past, she said she still loves her job and feels that her students are progressing.

Until staff and students can return to their classrooms together for full days, O'Malley said videos, along with extra instructional material for parents and personal phone calls help provide some extra support that she is unable to give in-person.

While teachers may not have much of a chance to interact face-to-face with their students right now, some parents — like Kate Arduser — are working to bring aspects of the teachers themselves into their homes.

"I just pretend to be Miss Jeppesen," said Arduser. "I talk like Miss Jeppesen. I say 'Anya, what would be a strategy for that?' Because quite honestly, I don't know. So I wait for Anya to tell me how to do the thing if she's needing help, and then she does it."

Arduser and her family do a lot of performing these days. When she and her husband get up for yoga in the morning, she said they also practice fake laughing. It's a great way to trick your body into thinking that life is great, said Arduser.

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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