COVID-19 surge in Nome prompts citywide closures
With 46 active COVID-19 cases in Nome and multiple cases of community spread, this week’s outbreak has caused a number of businesses and institutions to close their doors as people are asked to hunker down to contain the virus.
The City re-closed the Rec Center and the Visitor Center. City Hall will still be open, but with reduced hours Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. and from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. City Manager Glenn Steckman highly recommended that residents pay their bills online and get questions answered over phone or email.
The University of Alaska Fairbanks Northwest Campus closed to the public except for those with appointments, and some local businesses like The Murre and Bering Tea closed for an undefined period of time.
Kawerak’s Nome Head Start/Early Head Start/Child Care Partnership will be closed through January 8, although village Head Start programs remain open with closures on a case-by-case basis.
Most public Christmas celebrations have also been cancelled to slow the spread of the virus. The Nome Volunteer Fire Department’s Fireman’s Carnival was called off a month ago, and the Nome Elementary School Christmas Concert has been canceled as well.
Cheryl Thompson, the City Manager’s executive assistant, said they had been trying to find a way to have the annual Christmas Extravaganza in a distant, responsible way, but after this weekend’s outbreak they decided to cancel it altogether.
One of the biggest closures was Nome Public Schools, which announced last week that they would hold remote classes for the rest of the fall semester.
Superintendent Jamie Burgess explained that it was always the school’s plan to switch to “yellow” or “red” status, both of which involved reduced in-person learning, if there was a sharp rise in Nome’s case numbers. The district’s health advisory team, made up of representatives from the Division of Public Health and Norton Sound Health Corporation, advised they go entirely remote for two to three weeks while officials try to got the current outbreak under control. But since there were only three weeks of school left after Thanksgiving break, “we just decided that it made the most sense to go ahead and close for the remainder of the semester,” Burgess said. She said she was hopeful the district could return to “green” status and in-person classes for the spring semester. The week of January 4 to January 11 is scheduled as a remote week to allow teachers who may have left the region to quarantine and district leadership to evaluate the public health situation. If case numbers are low, students will be able to return to in-person instruction on January 11. Winter sports were already delayed, with basketball set to start in January and wrestling set to start in March. Burgess said that they’d try to hold practices as long as case numbers allowed like they did with cross country and volleyball.
The last few weeks of the fall semester will look similar to the end of last spring, with students completing paper packets that they pick up from and return to the school on a weekly basis.
Remote schooling elsewhere in the country often involves some form of online learning, but Burgess said a combination of strict funding rules and lack of access make online learning next to impossible for the Nome school district.
“So many of our families don’t have access to affordable unlimited high-speed internet,” she said. “That’s just a reality in our community.”
To increase internet access at the start of the pandemic, Burgess looked at ways they could push the school’s internet out into the community, possibly by establishing free internet hotspots for students around town.
The district also received permission to use some of Nome Eskimo Community’s CARES funding to buy personal Wi-Fi hotspots for students without internet at home. But 90 percent of Nome Public Schools’ internet bill is paid for by a federal program called E-Rate, which comes with a number of restrictions. “There’s a lot of things that we have to do to protect students as far as our firewalls, our monitoring and a lot of other things,” Burgess said. “And one of the specific limitations of E-Rate is that the internet cannot go outside the walls of the school.”
In the spring, she applied for a waiver with the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees the E-Rate program, to waive that rule, but the FCC has “categorically denied” any effort to change its rules, even in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. So, most of the district is stuck with paper packets, with the notable exception of some high school students. They can get electronic learning programs loaded onto flash drives, which they can download onto a computer in their home and complete from there.
The CARES funding from Nome Eskimo Community that was meant to go to Wi-Fi hotspots is now going to insurance for school laptops so they can be distributed to students who may not have access to a computer at home. “We have some families that declined a device last spring simply because they did not want to be responsible for the cost if it was damaged, lost or stolen,” Burgess said. “This way, there’s no liability for the families.”
Still, though, universal online learning would be better, and Burgess has been advocating with the state and federal legislature to expand internet access for students in underserved communities.
“There is a significant need for internet access to our students,” she said. “The fact that so many of our students lack that affordable high-speed internet access at home actually has a really big impact on the kids. They can’t do homework from home, they can’t do research projects, they can’t connect to any online opportunities through the school or the college. It’s really an issue.”
Despite these challenges, though, Burgess said she’s thankful to have had in-person learning for most of the semester. “We’re hopeful that community members will do their part in helping us get this outbreak back under control, because we want our kids back in our schools,” she said.
Funding for this coverage provided in part by a grant from the Alaska Center for Excellence in Journalism.