The Arctic Sounder

Free home internet for Northwest Arctic student households ends this month

The end of free home internet, attendance issues and goals, and the need for more school funding were among the topics discussed during the Northwest Arctic Borough School District meeting last week.

Starting in spring 2022, the district provided free home internet to households with students. The service was funded by the federal Emergency Connectivity Fund program that reimbursed schools for the cost of broadband connections to help students and staff participate in remote learning.

Specifically, the district was awarded funding for 10 months at 2Gbps of unlimited internet service through GCI and OTZ Telecommunications for each eligible student household in Kotzebue and other villages.

[Local school boards speak in favor of internet speed increase]

The service was initially scheduled to end several months ago but was extended until Feb. 29.

After that date, residents will need to return their modems. Kotzebue residents can do it through the GCI store. Noorvik residents can return their modem to the OTZ center, while in the rest of the villages, residents can do it through their local schools.

Increasing student attendance

Consistent attendance has been the primary objective for the district during this school year, Superintendent Terri Walker said.


“Student attendance is the cornerstone of a successful education,” Walker has said. “It contributes to academic achievement, fosters responsibility and discipline, supports social and emotional development, and enables educators to provide tailored support.”

Last school year, of 2,026 students enrolled across the district, 1,451 students were absent for 18 days or more and therefore matched the chronic absenteeism definition, Walker said. Moreover, 384 students were absent for 50 or more days, and 47 students were absent for 100 or more days.

This year, the school board set a goal to have 95% attendance across the district.

So far, about 65% of students —about 1,300 students — have 80% attendance or above, said Scott Martin, program and staff development specialist at the district. About 6% of the student body, or about 120 students across the Northwest Arctic, have less than 50% attendance, Martin said.

“That’s pretty good, still have a ways to go,” he said.

The district’s Attendance Committee is working on ways to improve the situation, he said.

Walker said one factor that can help attendance and overall student engagement is an increase in teacher staffing.

“We got 22 more certified staff over the winter break, which filled quite a bit of our classrooms where we were short teachers,” she said. “When we got those teachers in our classrooms, it was a big boost. Now we need to work to do all we can to get our children to come to school regularly to boost their skills.”

Budget deficit

Besides student attendance and engagement, the Northwest Arctic Borough School District — like many other districts in the state — is struggling with budget shortages, Walker said.

The district’s preliminary budget shows a $14 million deficit, which is about 20% of the budget, she said. The reasons for the deficit include various increases in fixed costs: heating fuel, electricity, health insurance and property and liability insurance costs that all went up, Walker said.

“Over the years with inflation, with the cost of living increasing and the funding staying the same for public education, our dollars have been being stretched thinner and thinner and thinner,” she said. “We are going to have to strategically look at, you know, what we’re going to do to help our budget match.”

Walker said that the district over the last several years has not received an increase in the Student Base Allocation, the formula used to calculate the amount of money allotted by the state to each of Alaska’s 54 school districts. In 2017, they received a $50 increase, which was insufficient, she said.

“If we were to have our expenditures match our revenues, we need $2,044 added to the Base Student Allocation, and we know that’s not going to happen,” she said.

This week, the Alaska Legislature is considering Senate Bill 140, which, among other things, includes a $300 BSA increase, from $5,960 to $6,260. The increase is less than a fourth of what school administrators say is needed after years of flat state funding, according to Anchorage Daily News.

[Sweeping education bill in limbo after split vote in Alaska House]

Walker asked parents and organizations to express their support for more education funding.

“These are the students who are going to be the people that are going to be taking care of us later on in life,” she said. “We need to treat them as our most valuable resource and put the money in there, that they’re worth.”


Alena Naiden

Alena Naiden writes about communities in the North Slope and Northwest Arctic regions for the Arctic Sounder and ADN. Previously, she worked at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.