Going ‘old school’: How one rural Alaska community is keeping students engaged during quarantine

Presented by Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium

Every day at 2 p.m., New Stuyahok’s sole math teacher, Joshua Gates, gets on a VHF radio that broadcasts throughout the Southwest Alaska village and sends a message to the community.

Gates shares a “math minute” — 10 math questions — a challenge for both students and parents. Then he shares the answers, and if students got them right, they are entered in a drawing to win a half pint of his homemade smoked salmon.

Gates’ ingenuity is just one example of how educators in New Stuyahok are getting creative to keep students engaged with school and their peers during a global pandemic. In the rural Alaska town of around 500 people, where internet use is limited and cell service unreliable, teachers have found new — and old — ways of connecting.

Going old school

Chief Ivan Blunka School sits a stone’s throw from the vast Nushagak River. New Stuyahok is about 50 miles from Dillingham, a hub city in the Bristol Bay region famous for its commercial salmon fisheries.

Around 150 students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade attend the school, which suspended in-person learning last spring and again beginning in November to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. During distance learning, the entire staff has worked tirelessly, said Principal Robin Jones, stretching far outside of normal routines to meet students’ needs.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers began creating paper packets every week for students to learn at home.

The school district is equipped with technology for every student; younger pupils have iPads, and older students have MacBooks. But most homes aren’t equipped with internet service, partially due to the high cost, but also because the infrastructure simply does not exist to support having every household online.

“The sudden shift to virtual learning has really highlighted the continued inequity that exists in Alaska in terms of home internet access,” said Assistant Principal Meghan Redmond.

Whereas schools on the road system were able to shift to online learning and live-streamed classes, “we don’t have that virtual option,” Redmond said. “We don’t even have 3G for our cell phones.”

Instead, teachers create paper packets every week that are sent to students’ homes. Students with specialized educational needs can come to school, and teachers and other staff are working harder than ever to ensure their safety, said Ben Griese, special education teacher.

Meanwhile, Griese has found a new use for aging technology. He found a 10-year-old computer capable of burning DVDs. He now gives students DVD video lessons they can watch at home.

“I’ve gone as old school as I possibly can,” Griese said.

Then there’s Subsistence Bingo. Principal Jones created a bingo sheet based around traditional Yup’ik values, with squares such as “Show respect,” “Share with an Elder,” and “Make akutaq.”

“Nothing makes me prouder as a principal than to be able to encourage, support, and celebrate students participating in subsistence activities,” Jones said.

Once students complete all the squares, they are sent five fishing lures to catch “every species of fish in the Nushagak River,” Jones wrote in a blog post about Subsistence Bingo.

Griese said one child went moose hunting with his grandfather this fall and ended up shooting his first moose. During the trip he “learned gun safety, processing moose, sharing, and navigating the river,” Griese said. When the child came back home, he made sure to tell Principal Jones first, as he knew she would be proud of him for providing for his family.

A student displays her completed subsistence bingo card.

“And that’s what Subsistence Bingo has really been — a celebration and a chance to connect,” Griese said.

‘You have to take every opportunity’

The pandemic has introduced countless challenges educators must navigate as they strive to keep students engaged.

“It’s an incredible amount of work for our teachers and staff,” Redmond said. “They exceed our expectations every single day.”

Now, more than ever, communication is crucial, Griese said.

“You need everyone’s number. Just to be able to text, ‘Hey, do you need help with this,” Griese said.

And when Griese sees students out walking in the community, he stops to chat. “That one time stopping on your four-wheeler when you’re driving down to the store, that might be the only connection the student had to the school that week,” Griese said. “You have to take every opportunity.”

Jones said that when the pandemic first started affecting life in New Stuyahok, she struggled with the change of pace and grieved for what the students and community had lost.

“When I finally came to terms with the new normal, I started to see what seemed like impossibilities before as new opportunities to build stronger relationships and leadership capacity with my staff,” Jones said.

One silver lining of the pandemic is that kids in New Stuyahok are spending more time outdoors, Griese said.

“I saw more kids fishing than I’ve ever seen before, I’ve heard of more kids picking berries than I’ve ever heard of,” Griese said. “And kids are also going on boats to hunt for moose, farther than they’ve ever gone.”

Last spring the graduating seniors, unable to hold a typical graduation ceremony, paraded through the town on four-wheelers instead, to the whoops and cheers of their community.

“The parade was equally as special,” Jones said, “and will likely become a new tradition that we do every year,” even after more typical graduation ceremonies return to New Stuyahok.

This story was sponsored by Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, a statewide nonprofit Tribal health organization designed to meet the unique health needs of more than 175,000 Alaska Native and American Indian people living in Alaska.

This story was produced by the sponsored content department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.

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