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?