“We don’t even know how to do it”: How distance education works without internet

Tatyana Avugiak of Chefornak and Kaylee King of Mekoryuk are KYUK interns, and will be high school seniors starting in the fall of 2020. (Courtesy of Tatyana Avugiak and Kaylee King)

Doing schoolwork at home is tough, especially in rural villages where internet is limited and access to teachers requires a phone call. But that’s what many students have been forced to do during the coronavirus pandemic.

Kaylee King of Mekoryuk and Tatyana Avugiak of Chefornak are both excellent students in the Lower Kuskokwim School District’s Media Ready Program. They were attending Bethel Regional High School, but had to go back to their villages to finish out the rest of the school year when the pandemic hit. They often worked together on projects while in Bethel, but seemed to head down different paths after they went back to their villages to study at home.

During the last week of school, King has a couple of school packets to finish up before she completes her school year. Part of the problem is that she hasn’t been in touch with her teachers regularly. She said that she has only talked a few times with them during the last two months. Both times, she talked with teachers over the phone.

“I don’t have internet,” she said.

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King does not have access to internet at home. She’s limited to calling teachers by phone and asking questions. The former excellent student is working hard just to keep up.

“The hardest part is having the school work, and then, of course, we don’t even know how to do it,” King said.

The last few months have also been a challenge for teachers. Patrick Williams, a Media Education Specialist with Bethel Regional High School, said that King is not alone. Most of the students he is working with have not been in enough contact with their teachers, he said. It’s an effort on both sides, and phoning can be frustrating, especially when there is no answer.

“When I was making more phone calls regularly,” Williams said, “it would be an hour or two a day, just trying to reach out to the same students over and over and over and over again.”

Williams is not the only teacher having problems getting through. He’s talked with colleagues about it. Internet is an issue. If the teacher is unavailable, being able to Google an answer to a question requires connectivity.

“You know, I can’t even imagine not being able to Google it,” said Williams, who lives in Bethel.

Williams thinks that connectivity is a major issue in the villages, but access to teachers and a learning environment is also a big problem. He said that the distractions of home responsibilities make it tough to get schoolwork done too.

Although it might take her more time, King’s teachers are confident that she will overcome these obstacles. She is, after all, an exceptional student, they said.

Avugiak is among the few in rural Alaska who have adequate access to internet and computers. In Chefornak, she lives with a teacher: her mother. A week before the school year ends, she has already finished her work and is now officially a senior.

“Yeah, I’ve been emailing all my teachers and scanning them through my mom, because she’s a teacher here in the village, which makes it easier for me to get my schoolwork done,” Avugiak said.

The months working at home have not left her frustrated, she said. In fact, Avugiak feels more capable of meeting challenges and overcoming them.

“Being independent, especially at home, has changed me in a good way. It’s a positive mindset of what I’m doing,” she said.

The two former schoolmates are also looking forward to very different summers.

Avugiak is headed to Wasilla to visit with family, and King is hoping to get out to fish camp. Both hope to spend at least part of their senior year in Bethel. As for their teachers, many are discussing what to do if kids can’t come back to school next fall. Williams said that he and his colleagues are looking at developing curriculum that can be delivered with high tech, low tech, and “no tech.” He is finding the “no tech” option particularly challenging.

“To create engaging, paper-based lesson plans that students aren’t going to put aside, I mean, it might come more naturally to others,” he said. “Myself, it would take some more time.”

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