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Nome schools face high closure rates during 2021–2022 school year

Exterior of Nome Beltz high school.
Nome Beltz high school. Photo by Brisa Alarcon, KNOM.

Nome-Beltz Middle/High School was closed on the days leading up to the 2022 spring break due to a lack of staff. And that wasn’t the first time in the school year a local school had to close. 

As of the beginning of April, Nome-Beltz had nine unscheduled closures during the 2021–2022 school year. Anvil City Science Academy had eight and Nome Elementary School had 14.

Nome Public Schools Superintendent Jamie Burgess said Nome schools have struggled during the 2021–2022 school year with short staffing. Teachers who test positive for COVID-19 need to isolate. While support staff can help cover classes whenever teachers are absent for any reason, many of those support positions are currently vacant.

“We’ve had challenges like we’ve never seen before this year,” Burgess said.

Those challenges include not only staffing issues, but unusually severe winter weather. The good news is that none of Nome’s schools have been forced to close during the 2021–2022 school year due to COVID-19 outbreaks among students.

“Kids getting COVID from each other, that hasn’t been an issue,” Burgess said.

When Nome schools close, students do “blizzard bag” assignments — packets of educational material they can complete at home. Burgess wasn’t sure if blizzard bags are an ideal solution, given how many school closures there have been this year. She and the school board plan to survey families about alternative strategies to compensate for school closures in the future.

“Are they okay with blizzard bags? Would they prefer to do Saturday school makeups instead? Do they want to push past the end of the year? Our calendar next year doesn’t have a lot of wiggle room as far as your traditional snow days, so we just have to come up with some other alternatives,” Burgess said.

The effectiveness of blizzard bags has been the subject of some debate among teachers. Making the blizzard bags is also more work for the teachers than community members might realize.

“There’s a lot of time spent creating extra supplemental content to where you’re not just wasting the kids’ time doing packets,” Nome-Beltz teacher Rosa Wright said.

And while the blizzard bags work alright for some students, they aren’t as effective for students who aren’t as self-motivated or who need some extra guidance.

“For me, I teach algebra, and a lot of people haven’t taken algebra in years. And so they might not have that help at home, to work through problems with them. Versus if I’m teaching them in person, I can take them through some problems, they get examples,” Wright said.

Plus, she pointed out, there are often more distractions at home.

“Sometimes it’s that the big siblings have to take care of the younger siblings because they’re at home too. So they’re expected to help their younger siblings with their work and do the other work. It’s not on anyone in particular; that’s just the responsibility that kind of falls on older siblings,” Wright said.

Burgess and Wright both said one thing that would help keep schools open is if more community members became substitute teachers.

“We’d like to hope that some folks will consider trying to come out and substitute for us. We do have some substitute bonuses; anyone who comes out and subs for us for 20 days — it doesn’t have to be consecutive — we’re giving a $500 bonus,” Burgess said.

Burgess also said substitutes can choose which schools they want to substitute for and which days they’re available.

Photo at the top: Nome-Beltz Middle/High school. Photo by Brisa Ashley, KNOM.

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