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Nome Staff & Students Expected to Wear Masks At School Starting in the Fall

Exterior of Nome Elementary School, an off-white building with a smiling polar bear as its mascot.

Officials with Nome Public Schools say they are preparing to be flexible for any situation when the next academic year starts in August. But schools certainly won’t feel like they did before the COVID-19 pandemic.

NPS Superintendent Jamie Burgess told the Nome school board last week [June 23rd], the upcoming school year will include measures like wearing PPE and even under-going daily temperature screenings.

“We are going to be looking at masks and face shields for all of our staff and students.”

– Jamie Burgess

Burgess knows that will be an adjustment for many students and that some families won’t be comfortable with the idea. NPS will try to make masks available for free to help students who can’t or won’t come in with their own mask every day.

“We are going to try to take this out with a positive message. Like I said before, ‘We are wearing masks because we care about each other and we are doing our best to keep people safe.’”

But students will likely only be wearing masks in the best-case scenario, meaning if they can actually to go to school for five days per week. That would be what NPS is calling the “green phase.”

Burgess is working based off of a plan recommended by the Department of Health and Social Services that is comprised of three phases: a green, a yellow, and a red phase. Whatever phase the school operates in will be determined by the recommendation of the state’s public health department and that depends on the spread of COVID-19 cases in the local community.

If Public Health decides there is a “moderate risk” of community spread in Nome, schools would operate in the “yellow”. That phase would combine classroom and school instruction. Students would essentially take turns having days where they went to the school building to allow for smaller classes.

NPS still has to figure out exactly what that model could look like. It could be that students spend two days a week in the classroom and then study pre-uploaded curriculum or supplemental curriculum provided by their teachers. The school is also considering how they can use that model to meet the needs of special education students and whether those students could still come into the building for “in-person” instruction more often. Burgess says the school may need to include occasional workshops to help parents be better prepared for their role in a child’s at-home education.

But if the school district has a student or staff member test positive for COVID-19, the school would likely go into the “red phase”: classes operating completely online.

Burgess reminded the Nome school board last week that the virus will likely be a factor throughout the whole 2020 to 2021 school year and that they could be switching between phases throughout the year.

“There is no zero-risk scenario. The pandemic is still here, and it will likely be here. Until a vaccine or good treatment is found.”

– Jamie Burgess

The district expects it to be challenging for teachers who will need to be prepared with class lessons that could translate from being taught in the classroom to online. One tool that won’t give them too much of that flexibility is the Alaska Statewide Virtual School.  Nome Superintendent Burgess says that enrolling in the virtual school is more of a “commitment.”

“So either they start and they stay in Alaska Virtual School for the year or they start out that way and then at some point they come to the in school learning. But they would kind of need to stay there so you basically get one transfer.”

And meanwhile, if the coronavirus causes classes to go back online, the Nome school district will once again have to deal with assisting students to access the internet. NPS is investigating the feasibility of installing internet “hot-spots” around town to help students complete online work.

Image at Top: Exterior of Nome Elementary School, August 22, 2018. Photo: David Dodman, KNOM.

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