A boardwalk in Port Alexander in 2019. Port Alexander is one of eight schools in the Southeast Island School District. The district opened the school year in the “low-risk” zone and is holding in-person classes, as long as six-foot distancing can be maintained. (Becky Meiers/KCAW)

The eight schools in the Southeast Island School District started classes on Monday (8-31-20)–including Port Alexander’s school. Students have the option to take classes online through the district’s statewide correspondence program or to attend full-time, in-person classes. KCAW’s Erin McKinstry spoke with Superintendent Sherry Becker about the district’s Smart Start plan for the upcoming school year. 

KCAW: Obviously the plan is for the whole district, but each school is unique, it might have unique circumstances, so how did you go about accommodating all those different needs and circumstances that might arise throughout the school year?

SB: Our current Smart Start Plan is for the district as a whole and then each of our individual schools, because of them being so different, they also have their individual plans, which is our plan, but it’s modified to meet their enrollment numbers and their capacity for physical distancing and keeping children and staff safe.

KCAW: How did remote learning go in the spring for the district, and what have you done since to improve remote learning opportunities and capacity?

SB: The whole process–it was so quick, but the amount of guidance that we had from the state and just on the island and other districts in the state, was just phenomenal. The teachers in our district and the paraprofessionals, the classified staff, did an amazing job. Being in rural Alaska, you have to be flexible. And being in Southeast Island School District, we are used to thinking outside of the box. We are very unique, and we pride ourselves on that. So, I think our teachers did a phenomenal job. They were there during all of our planning meetings. They spent many, many, many hours of their own time.

KCAW: What about at-home internet capacity for families that may not have internet, or technology, laptops, Chrome books, those kinds of things–is that something that you’ve seen concern about or addressed at all or is it pretty well covered in your district?

SB: It is not covered as far as numerous families that do not have internet access at home. We have a couple of communities that do not have cell phone service, so we got creative in the spring. One of the first things we did was reach out to each one of our students’ families to assess the needs. What are the needs in your home, not just for Do you have internet? Do you have a computer? Do you have [a] phone? Do you have cell phone or landline service? There was a couple of cases where kids in Alaska did not have electricity. So even if we sent them a preloaded iPad, there was not the ability to charge the iPad. So, we are trying to look at all the different things that are affecting our students and our staff.

KCAW: Why is it important to have students actually physically in the classroom versus just relying on virtual learning again?

SB: There’s so many important factors. Especially for our elementary kids, that connection with their teacher in those early learning years, a Kindergarten child, developing a trust with an adult that is in effect like a parent to them most of the day. For those Kindergarteners, preschoolers, first and second graders–they need that connection really, really strong in those early days. That plays such an important part of the whole learning process–the social-emotional aspect of being with their peers and having that social interaction.

KCAW: Do you have anything else you’d like to say about the plan or the start of the school year?

SB: We’re just ready to see those smiling faces. Can’t wait to see student art on the hallway walls and just seeing those excited faces. That’s what we look forward to.

Southeast Island School District’s full Smart Start Plan can be found here. A list of plans from around the state can be found here. Erin McKinstry is a Report for America corps member.