Two months after the new Kivalina school opened its doors to students, unreliable bus service has made getting to the new building precarious for some parents. But the residents stepped up to overcome the hurdles.
The new Kisimġiugtuq School is located 7 miles inland from Kivalina. In response to continual erosion and storms, residents hope to eventually relocate the village to the area where the school was built. Construction started in the summer of 2020 and the doors to the new building and spacious gymnasium opened to its 152 students in November, a month behind schedule.
The school district purchased two buses to transport children from the current village site to the new school, but the buses are not running consistently.
“It’s been broken down more than it has been operable,” said resident Janet Mitchell, whose grandchildren and relatives attend the school.
School buses were not running for several days in November because of bad weather, and for about two weeks in December because of mechanical issues, shipping delays and weather-related flight cancellations, Kisimġiugtuq School Principal Jeremy Millard said Jan. 11.
Bus service interruptions significantly affected student attendance, Millard said. At the beginning of the school year, about 90% of students were coming to school every day, but on some days without a bus, attendance dropped to about 40%. Absences caused by lack of transportation or dangerous weather conditions are excused, Millard said.
What helps solve the transportation hurdles the most is residents helping other residents, Millard said.
“The community stepped up big time,” Millard said. “They drive kids to school on four-wheelers and snowmobiles or in vehicles. They do what they can to get as many kids up here as possible.”
Community members step up
On the days when the bus is not running, parents need to get their children to and from school, plus to and from evening sports activities.
Not everyone in the village has a vehicle, so residents who do offer rides to students, despite the gas costing $7 per gallon, Mitchell said.
“We try to take as much as we could to school,” said Replogle Swan, the president of Kivalina Volunteer Search and Rescue. “I get three or four trips, sometimes five, a day.”
Even when the bus was running, to make sure the rides go smoothly, Swan, Mayor Austin Swan Sr. and Dolly Helen rode behind the bus during the first week. Swan still checks the road every morning.
“It’s just a routine for me,” he said.
Some students can drive ATVs and snowmachines to get to school by themselves. That is the case for resident Janour Hawley’s oldest children.
“My two older ones have been driving with the snowmachine, the ones who are familiar with the trail and drive,” he said on Jan. 8. “I haven’t been letting my younger kids go to school: it’s been too cold for them to ride in a sled 8 miles up and down. Hopefully, (the bus) is running in the morning so I can send all my kids up and enjoy the peace and quiet for the day.”
Bus service issues
The Northwest Arctic Borough School District originally planned to purchase two new school buses for Kivalina, Millard said, but production was down during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the new buses “weren’t able to make it to the barge in time.”
“We ended up scrambling for a couple of used buses,” he said. “We needed something.”
In December, the buses had several routine mechanical issues, Millard said. Holidays, shipping delays and weather-related flight interruptions contributed to Kivalina students not having bus service for a prolonged period that month, Millard said. The first week of January, mechanics came to Kivalina. By Jan. 6, the buses were fixed, according to Millard.
“The buses are currently running, and kids are coming to school on the bus on a regular basis,” Millard said.
Since weather and other conditions make it hard to bring a mechanic to Kivalina, the village and school would benefit from having a local mechanic, Swan said. Millard agreed that hiring locally would be ideal, but mechanic positions are demanding and hard to fill.
“The district is always looking for more maintenance personnel,” Millard said, “and they’re really hard to find.”
The brand-new buses are scheduled to be on the barge this summer, and Kivalina school students should be able to use them in the upcoming school year, Millard said. The school will keep two old buses for backup.
While the district purchased two school buses, there is only one certified driver available, Millard said. He is on a rotational shift, two weeks on and two weeks off, and is scheduled to leave the village after Jan. 23 unless he chooses to stay longer, Millard said.
“We will be without a bus again until he rotates back again, or until we find another bus driver,” Millard said.
The school is working toward certification for another bus driver, but many Kivalina residents don’t have driver’s licenses and the training takes a long time, Millard said. In addition to screening and background checks, it takes four to six weeks of training outside the village plus a week of driving with an instructor in the village to pass the school bus driver test.
“We’re recruiting and encouraging as much and as often as we can,” Millard said. “We have a guy or two who expressed interest in the program and getting all of the training done.”
The road to the new school
To get to the new school site, students follow a newly built road, placed high enough to withstand the 100-year recurrence of ocean storm surges and river flooding events, said Danielle Tessen, information officer for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. Armor stones were used to prevent erosion as well.
Still, some residents worry about sharp turns and no railings driving up the road.
“When it comes to the condition of the road, you know, you still have a little bit of worry about safety,” Mitchell said. “When there’s a crosswind, obviously, the road is slick, and even a truck can be pushed sideways. That road is being used to transport students, and the conditions of the road need to be improved for the safety of all involved.”
Millard said Northwest Arctic Borough personnel maintain the road and sometimes struggle with equipment such as a loader and grater. Millard praised communication with the borough and said that it’s easy to get updated information about road conditions and maintenance status.
Another challenge with the commute to the new school is wild animals, such as wolves, foxes and bears, Mitchell said.
This fall, hunters caught five wolves in the vicinity of the school, in a span of two weeks, she said. In spring, hibernating bears will be waking up looking for food. Several dens are located below the mountains, a few miles from the school site.
“That’s where we will have to be even more watchful,” she said. “And (students) need to stay inside the school. Even just stepping out of the school is a danger for their safety.”
Swan said that while the animals are indeed close to the school, “there’s a lot of people watching — the teachers watch, the students in the classroom watch.”
Overall, Millard said that transitioning to the new school outside of Kivalina might be an unprecedented experience for an Alaska village. The process has been challenging, but the school district, school employees and, most importantly, the community have helped overcome the hurdles.
“There’s definitely still times where the things that we want aren’t happening as quickly as we’d like them to happen,” Millard said. “But the people behind the scenes are working all the time. They’re definitely trying their best. And I give a ton of credit to the community members who are driving back and forth, hauling kids when they need to, and doing it on their own dime and time.”