Tipping Point Reached

Things are moving fast. On Thursday, April 2 Ravn Air, one of the largest airlines that serves rural Alaska, Ravn announced that they were “scaling back” which meant no service to most rural villages. Ravn is one of two commercial airlines that serve the communities that make up my district. Then just three days later on April 5 Ravn announced that they were ceasing all operations and filing for bankruptcy. This had had a huge impact on rural Alaska. While in some instances other carriers committed to taking up the slack, the reality is that these other air carriers also have limited capacity to do much more then they were already doing.

In Akiachak, there are packages in Bethel that have been waiting for delivery to the village for at least four weeks. Also, the village store, the only place to get food and supplies, has not received any deliveries in weeks. The other air carrier for the village has been so backed up that there have been ZERO regular scheduled flights in or out of the villages, and instead passengers are told that they on a waiting list and to keep checking back.

And then it happened on Monday evening, April 7: The first cases of COVID-19 were reported in Bethel, the hub community for so mach of rural Alaska. What has been especially interesting is that the Bethel folks are refusing getting tested for COVID-19 because of the fear of stigma. This means that efforts to contain the virus are going to be futile. Meanwhile, there are regular reports of village residents ignoring village quarantines and moving in and out of Bethel and their communities. Some of this is natural given that villages are not getting supplied with food and other necessary items, and some of it is reckless behavior. Add to this the reality that rural Alaska about 15 people live in each household, and we can see the conditions set for a rapid and devasting spread of the virus.

Meanwhile, Alaska Airlines, the only air service in and out of Bethel, has scaled back their service tremendously. In addition, they aren’t operating full flights in order to keep social distancing. This creates the potential for hundreds of teachers in rural Alaska to not be able to leave the village and return to their families. The principal in one of our schools detached his retina last week, and is still trying to get a flight out of the village to a hospital.

My District is finally taking steps to figure out how to get teachers home today, Tuesday April 7. It sounds like we’ll have teachers distribute homework packets to students that will cover the remainder of the year, and then somehow work up a system for having local folks collect the packets, scan them, and email them to teachers for grading.

Meanwhile, across the state rural villages are reacting in different ways as the epidemic moves from “something that is happening out there” to “something that is happening here”. Keep in mind that in many cases, villages, or groups of villages are sovereign tribal governments. In the North Slope, the tribe has actually commandeered the Ravn facilities so that they won’t be stranded without a way to move goods and people. We are getting reports of other villages completely closing their borders as well.

Oh, and have I mentioned that there[s a high probability of severe flooding this spring? It is true. The thick ice and heave snowfall this winter increases the likelihood that the frozen Kuskokwim river will create an ice dam as it thaws, flood the surrounding area. Our villages have a history of this happening. When it does, the school buildings become the community’s high ground and shelter. How will we handle the community retreating to the school if we are also in a quarantine? How will we get supplies during flooding in an already stressed supply line? Let’s hope these aren’t problems we have to solve.

And this just in

shortly after I made the previous post, this email came in:

 To: All Staff

Re: Contracts

From Superintendent Bennett and State of Alaska

Date: March 23, 2020

This is a hard time for our state and nation.  Decisions are being made daily by those in leadership in our state education department.  After conferring with the state and our attorney yesterday, I am directed to give you the following message;

  • It is the expectation of the state and this district that we are contracted to provide on-going education for our students.
  • Leaving the village and your position is a breach of contract that could lead to immediate dismissal.
  • Providing a medical note to leave your position is no longer valid as everyone in the nation is at health risk.  (Medical cases will be reviewed by leadership on a case by case basis).
  • The has verification from Alaska Air that they will continue service to the rural areas.
  • Yute has been contacted and they too have verified they will continue to serve the villages.
  • Most villages have directed that leaving the village is by emergency necessity and returning is subject to another quarantine.
  • The district office is committed to staying in Akiachak and taking care of you.

How to NOT protect those we serve.

On March 9 the Yupiit School District (along with many other schools across Alaska) began their spring break. Now, what spring break means in a rural community might be different than how these things are handled elsewhere. Keep in mind that most of the certified teachers in rural districts come from outside the village, most with families and residences in other states. Meanwhile, most of the people of the village are living near the poverty line. So, spring break in YSD means teachers traveling to other states, while the village folk stay put.

The global pandemic was a thing, but still seemed like something that was happening to other people. That started to change each day as the news became more dire, but still we hadn’t seen a case in Alaska, so what’s to worry? But, by March 12, Alaska had its first case. On Friday, March 13, at 5:00 pm, the Governor proclaimed that students would not be attending school until March 30, but that teachers needed to come back to work. 

Let’s just think about that for a minute: Our state has hundreds of rural villages that average about 300 people. These villages are relatively isolated, so the exposure risk to the COVID-19 virus is low. And now, the Governor is ordering teachers who have been traveling across the country to return to these same isolated villages. In YSD’s case, that’s an average of 14! teachers per village. In Akiachak, add another four folks from the District Office. 

In the YSD, folks returning from outside were told to to put themselves in quarantine for 5-14 days, depending on where folks were returning from. This resulted in teachers leaving their families and moving into their teacher housing, which does not have internet connection. 

And here’s where I disobeyed the governor and my superintendent. I stayed in Sitka. I would be able to do far more work from home than I could in my Akiachak apartment. Further, though I would have only been prescribed a 5 day quarantine, I would be roommates with someone on at 14 day quarantine, which means I would be apartment bound for two weeks as well!

Two people from the District office, one of them the superintendent, ignored the quarantine. As an aside, our superintendent had been very busy traveling: to Hawaii, to Anchorage, and to North Carolina, providing a much higher risk of COVID-19 exposure than the average teacher. 

For the next week, teachers were quarantined to their apartments while the District scrambled for a plan to provide students with food, then some kind of education. Then, on Friday, March 20, this time at 6:00 pm, we got a proclamation from our governor that schools would be closed through May 1. We also started to see COVID-19 cases popping up across the state, giving us a good indicator of what’s to come. 

But even more concerning is what was coming from the village tribal councils.

This one came from Akiachak. The next day Akiak had a similar proclamation. We are starting to see villages lock down. These are sovereign nations that are closing their borders.

Where does that leave our teachers? Each day that we don’t move teachers home puts them at higher risk. Bush planes are certainly not following any cleaning protocols. Supply chains in the village aren’t strong in the best of times, as things start tightening down, it is a very real possibility that we will see food shortages. There are some lovely teachers, who have taught for years in Akiachak, who are beginning to not feel safe.

Let’s not forget that the history of the indigenous people of Alaska is one where well-meaning white folk decimated the populations by inadvertently introducing diseases that these people did not have immunity to. Having lived in Tuluksak, I can tell you that there is less a likelihood of the tribal council making a declaration and more a likelihood of a local, maybe not thinking too clearly, grabbing a gun to address these fears.

The governor stopped short of announcing any mandate banning nonessential air travel to and from Alaska or restricting travel within the state. That’s what a group of emergency room directors in the state recommended in an open letter to Dunleavy published by the Anchorage Daily News. But Dunleavy said “nothing is off the table” and that restrictions on air travel were part of ongoing discussions.

A thing perceived as real is real in its consequences. What are the consequences for teachers who are working for an administration that isn’t putting the safety of the village first, and soon may have difficulty leaving the village all together?

What is it that teachers need to do in the next month that they CAN’T do from home?

What does “poorest performing school” mean?

You know, I have been taking it for granted that, when I say “Yupiit School District is the lowest performing school in the state” that folks have an idea what that means, but I’m learning that, even among our own staff, folks are shocked when they actually see the data.

So let’s look at some data.

I just put this table together of PEAKS scores (the Performance Evaluation of Alaska Schools). It is a standardized test that the state started administering in 2016. Let’s take a look at the last three years of testing. This data is for all three schools, and we’ll just look at ninth grade:

9th grade PEAKS scores, Yupiit School District

For those of you not in the education biz, “LA” stands for Language Arts. To summarize, 90% or more of the ninth graders tested in the Yupiit School District are “Far Below Proficient” in both Language Arts and Math. Compare this to the statewide data, where in 2018-2019, 34% of Alaska students score “Far Below Proficient” in Language Arts, and 22% are “Far Below Proficient” in Math.

Our District will graduate maybe 20 students this year. Consider that, when these students started kindergarten, they had around 40 classmates. Our District has a consistent 50% dropout rate. But the most difficult thing to stomach is this: those 20 students that we graduate will have, AT BEST, a 9th grade [Western] education. Yet, we will have done little to prepare them for life in their village, either. Instead of classes on managing money, cooking meals, raising kids, or fixing things that are broken, these kids will have been marched through literally tens of thousands of dollars or math and reading intervention programs.

Here’s another chart for you, this one on attendance. I’ll use this year’s data – it is consistent with past years.

The numbers will go steadily down as we approach the end of the year. High schoolers, especially, begin to disappear once we get into spring. Also, keep in mind that once a student misses 10 consecutive days of school, they are removed from the books. If we kept the drop-outs in this data, our numbers would be even lower.

The chart above is presented at every school board meeting, and inevitably there is a conversation about how we can get more kids to show up to school. My question to that is, given the quality of the education that these young people will receive, why should they bother going to school in the first place?

Home and Back Again

This Christmas break gave me my first chance to return to Sitka since the beginning of the school year. Re-entry took about 72 hours. There’s such a dissonance between life in Akiachak and life in Sitka that my brain needed some time to readjust. This, of course, made it that much harder to leave Sitka and come back here. 

I took the river route from Akiachak to Bethel to catch the plane home. The truck had its back window knocked out, but we used cardboard and boys to keep out the cold.

And I’m one of the lucky few who who have regular breaks away! For most of the teachers and non-resident employees, the only opportunities to return to home and families is the Christmas break and summer. I can really appreciate what a strain that can be on one’s mental health. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not equating living in Akiachak with a prison sentence – it’s just just “home” for me, and for most of the teachers that work int his district, is somewhere else. Leaving that connection is a difficult thing. Staying mentally healthy while being away from home requires some rearrangement of mental furniture. It ain’t easy.

The ice build-up on the inside of my double-paned window.

Since I’ve been back the weather has been in the minus 20’s. When school districts up here recruit for new teachers, they tend to focus on job fairs in Minnesota and Montana – places where folks will already have the cold weather gear they’ll need during the dark days of winter. 

For whatever reason the tribe hasn’t taken the trash to the dump in the village for a while. Once things get this full the dogs start to scavenge and drag trash all over.

Some things that have happened in the past month:

  • A 19 year old male died of alcohol poisoning over Christmas Break in Tuluksak.
  • A woman was killed (domestic violence) over the break in Tuluksak.
  • The Tuluksak water plant ran out of fuel (used to heat and pump the water) and made an emergency request fro fuel from the school. This came in at 9:30 pm on a Friday. 
  • Water and sewer lines froze in the Tuluksak school and teacher housing, repairs are still underway. 
  • A notice was delivered to the District Office from the Village of Akiak that as of June 30 all housing being rented by the District would revert back to the tribe. 90% of teacher housing in AKI is rented from the village. The erosion of the riverbank has led to concerns that villagers should have priority of the existing housing. Clearly this is part of a bigger story – I’ll keep you posted.

Short Days

As we approach winter solstice, I thought it would be interesting to give you beginning, middle, and end pictures of our short days up here.

Sunrise at 10:30 am
2:30-ish in the afternoon, with the sin at its highest point for the day. I took this from a different perspective, but if you match up telephone poles you’ll see that the sun has moved a great deal across the horizon.
And here’s sunset at around 4:30 pm. Because of the low angle of the sunset, it will remain twilight for another hour.

A warm Saturday bike ride

Temperatures were almost hitting 40 degrees, so it was an easy ride. I went up the Tuluksak trail maybe 5 miles, then cut over to the river and up a slough chasing the sunset (which was around 4:30 pm).

This is a major “road” connecting Akiachak and Tuluksak, about 30 miles away. It cuts straight across the tundra, and just about starts at my backdoor. There’s hardly a trace of it in the summer time.
That’s Cemetery Hill. At some point this was a high river bluff, but the river has changed course long since. It is the highest point for miles around.
Cemetery Hill.
This is the point I decided to turn around. It just boggles my mind: it looks like I’m taking this picture in any old field, but there are literally THOUSANDS of uninhabited miles behind me.
These guys came up one me fast.
I think a snow machine would be way more comfortable than a dog sled.
On the Kuskokwim. Hard to tell from the picture, but the river has a big bump in it here where the ice was pushing against itself.
Here’s a fishing hole. We go here for “manaqing” in Yuplish.