Facing construction delays and COVID-19, Bristol Bay Borough holds class in fish plants and chapels

Mar 3, 2021

A school renovation project that was supposed to finish months ago left the Bristol Bay Borough school looking for class space. Organizations around the borough stepped in to offer makeshift classrooms — a welcome solution during a particularly bumpy year.

Bristol Bay Borough students learn in a makeshift classroom. February 2021.
Credit Courtesy of Shannon Harvilla

Students and staff at the Bristol Bay Borough school have weathered a rough year.

The district planned for a renovation of the school building to finish months ago. The project derailed this summer when construction crews discovered asbestos in the building.

Bristol Bay Borough students at Silver Bay Seafoods' facilities. February 2021.
Credit Courtesy of Shannon Harvilla

“That kind of delayed our project on the interior," explained Superintendent Bill Hill. "We moved to the exterior of the school and found a significant amount of dry rot. And that delayed the exterior renovation as well. Basically derailed the project by about three months, as an estimate.”

All the while, students and staff dealt with restrictions to in-person learning due to COVID-19. The construction limited the ability to safely instruct students at the school while observing safety protocols. Principal Shannon Harvilla said students have attended school remotely, and teachers have brought in small groups for in-person instruction.

“We’ve only had access to our cafeteria, so it’s really been, you know, half of a class at a time,” Harvilla said.

The district had hoped to bring kids back to the school building after the holidays, but the delays were relentless.

"We were not provided with a firm date on when we could return to the building," Hill said. "Long story short, we decided to explore some other options.”

Community organizations offered their facilities as temporary classrooms.

Bristol Bay Borough students attend in-person classes in chapels, offices, and fish processing facilities in February and March. February 2021.
Credit Courtesy of Shannon Harvilla

High school students attend class at the Silver Bay Seafoods fleet office and bunkhouse. Seventh- and eighth-grade students are attending class in the school building's one available room. Third- through sixth-grade students are at the former offices of the Paugvik Native Corporation. Pre-K through second-grade students are at to the Naknek Community Bible Chapel.

The need for classroom space prompted an outpouring of support.

“All of our communities in the Borough offered up facilities for school to happen," said Hill. "These ones were just kind of located closer to the school where we could expedite lunch programs and delivery and transportation of students," Hill said.

The pandemic has forced schools around the country to rethink their approach to learning and shift to remote classes. Many of those models rely on the internet.

But in rural Alaska, internet is limited — and expensive. Hill said delivering instruction online is a challenge.

“Anybody who lives in bush Alaska knows that the cost of internet services is so extremely high, and then the stability of those services is sometimes questionable. That’s been a huge issue for us,” he said.

Hill said the school’s staff stepped up to the challenge: they drove the 15-mile stretch of road from Naknek to King Salmon to deliver meals and homebound instruction packets.

“Our staff has really stepped up, and they’ve been very flexible, and we’ve had students in and out of school. We’ve been delivering meals since last March. We’ve provided every family with a stipend for internet.”

Those stipends cost the district a total of approximately $100,000 for this school year.

The borough’s online learning system experienced glitches and delays throughout the year. So, Principal Harvilla said, it’s a big relief for teachers to be back in the class.

“The isolation that teachers feel working from home, not being connected to colleagues," he said, "Then just the delays in being able to get materials out here due to changes at the post office, things like that, have been difficult to overcome.”

The borough’s students are spending four days a week in their makeshift classrooms through mid-March. One day a week will be reserved for those learning from home to have in-person classes and for teachers to work on homebound lesson plans.

Contact the author at isabelle@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.