The School District Where the Shutdown Hit Nearly Everyone

Kindergarten teacher Brandi Noe, with Principal Michelle StClair and preschool teacher Kim Raisley, at a dinner for members of the U.S. Coast Guard, federal employees, and their families at Peterson Elementary School in Kodiak, Alaska, this week. Many families in the school are federal workers who’ve not been paid in weeks because of the government shutdown.
Kindergarten teacher Brandi Noe, with Principal Michelle StClair and preschool teacher Kim Raisley, at a dinner for members of the U.S. Coast Guard, federal employees, and their families at Peterson Elementary School in Kodiak, Alaska, this week. Many families in the school are federal workers who’ve not been paid in weeks because of the government shutdown.
—Photo courtesy Michelle StClair
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In the Kodiak Island Borough in Alaska, home to Coast Guard Base Kodiak, nearly everyone knows someone who’s been hit by the federal government shutdown.

Across the school district that serves this remote community, about 400 of the 2,400 students have parents who are members of the Coast Guard and who have worked without pay during the shutdown, with about an equal number of students whose parents work as federal government contractors.

Even as President Donald Trump announced a deal late Friday to temporarily reopen the government while talks continue with congressional Democrats on his demand for border wall money, communities like Kodiak were still dealing with the reverberations of so many families who hadn’t been paid for several weeks. The news of a temporary deal wasn’t doing much yet to ease anxieties. And they could find themselves in the same position in mid-February if congressional leaders and President Trump do not reach an agreement and trigger another shutdown.

“You might say it’s affected every facet of our community, especially the businesses, restaurants, stores,” said Superintendent Larry LeDoux.

And at one school in particular, the numbers have been particularly stark. At Peterson Elementary School, which is adjacent to the Coast Guard base, nearly half of the school’s staff are spouses or relatives of federal workers. Nearly 80 percent of the school’s 291 students are either children of active duty Coast Guard members or federal employees. (There is also a NOAA station and National Wildlife Refuge in Kodiak.)

For many of those students, both parents kept working during what became the longest government shutdown in history, but got no pay.

District Offers Food and Other Relief

As the shutdown moved into its sixth week, the district had taken a number of steps to blunt the impact. It allowed teachers and staff affected to cash in their leave time, which they generally can’t do until the end of the school year. The local unions allowed teachers and staff to defer any dues, LeDoux said.

Like many other districts had done, Kodiak expanded its free and reduced-price meals to affected families and had been helping pay the costs for students to travel for sports and other activities.

The stress from home had been showing in students as the shutdown dragged on, LeDoux said.

“Whenever there is stress at home it comes to school,” LeDoux said. “Sometimes it’s depression, sometimes it’s kids not doing their work. Many times, it manifests in increased behavioral concerns.”

Peterson Elementary had been giving out snacks in every classroom. Its counselors were frequently checking in on students.

Mostly, the school’s staff had been keeping their eyes peeled for signs of distress.

More adults had been added to the school’s morning ritual of greeting students as they arrive, said Principal Michelle StClair. Teachers spent more time during their morning classroom meetings using the “zones of regulation,” a social-and-emotional-learning tool to determine how students were feeling and to let them know that teachers were there to listen and help.

And StClair had partnered with the food pantry on the Coast Guard base to deliver food to the faculty lounge so staff would have snacks and lunches available without having to spend money.

The school's PTA also postponed its annual fundraiser, which raised $2,500 last year for books and other school supplies. Officials didn’t want parents to feel pressured to give money they did not have.

“It’s stressful for a lot of us here,” said StClair, whose husband is a federal firefighter and was also not getting paid during the shutdown.

“We want to be that calm presence here at school, a place where they feel safe,” StClair said. “We are available for them if they want to talk or [want] somebody to listen to them. We are trying to move forward as normally as possible just to create that safe environment for our students.”

But, StClair said, the hardships brought on by the shutdown had felt surreal, like “this isn’t really happening.”

‘Scared to Spend Any Money’

During an assignment focused on Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, one student wrote that his dream was that the federal government shutdown would end. Another’s dream was to help the Coast Guard.

“I just think that’s so telling [about] what’s on their minds,” said Antoinette Gross, a kindergarten teacher.

Gross, whose husband is a chief with the Coast Guard and has been with the agency for 19 years, knows the pain firsthand.

Her husband last got paid Jan. 1, and she knew they couldn’t make the next mortgage payment with only her income.

Bad dreams had been frequently waking her up.

“Last night I was running through water, trying not to slip,” she said. “It’s really weird where your mind goes.”

Gross said she had stopped spending money, except on gas. She didn’t buy groceries. Or coffee. And her face cream had run out.

“I am just scared to spend any money,” she said the day before Trump announced the temporary reopening of the government.

In need of necessities like tissue paper and food to make lunch for her teenage daughter, she went to the food pantry on the Coast Guard base last week.

“From the time I pulled into the parking lot to walk in there, I was crying the entire time,” Gross recalled. “It is embarrassing. Here I am, a professional in this community, and I am going to a food pantry to get free tissue paper because I don’t know how long the shutdown is going to last, and I do have bills to pay. I don’t want to lapse on anything. It’s almost like I’m in disbelief. It doesn’t seem real to me.”

She’d held off on enrolling her daughter in the district’s free and reduced meal program, but did so this earlier week so she could have free breakfast and lunch at school.

“I know a lot of students at Peterson are definitely using [the breakfast and lunch program] also because it’s two fewer meals we have to worry about our kids getting,” Gross said.

And it’s not just Gross. When the PTA first bought snacks for every classroom shortly after the shutdown started, only about three students in her class didn’t bring their own snacks to school. By the start of week six of the shutdown, nearly half of the children came without snacks, she said.

“Some of them were saying ‘my mommy is so glad that you’re giving me snacks," Gross said.

The shutdown put teachers, who are used to being the ones who give, into an unfamiliar position as the ones asking for help.

“Every teacher in this school gives above and beyond what’s expected,” Gross said. “We are here on weekends, we do extra things for our kids. And right now, I am not necessarily able to give [them] what they need.”

In Kodiak, it’s hard to escape the shutdown’s effect. According to the New York Times, nearly a quarter of the population is an employee or the Coast Guard or a dependent of someone who works for the Coast Guard.

It’s also tougher on the island because many of the federal employees are considered essential employees and had been required to work during the shutdown. That gave them little or no time to find substitute jobs to earn extra money and because they are working they cannot file for unemployment insurance.

Gross said that even if she wanted to find a part-time job to help supplement the family’s income, it would be difficult as businesses are already hurting from the restricted spending.

While the community has been supportive and generous, Gross fears that there is a limit to that generosity. There is only so much one can give, without needing assistance themselves, she said.

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“We are so contained here,” she said. “My fear is that people are going to give a lot, and they are going to run out of things to give and then it’s just going to get even worse. Everybody is trying to pull their weight, but there is only so much we can do with what we have to work with. It’s really scary.”

For LeDoux, the superintendent, one of the biggest worries of a prolonged shutdown is the impact on students academically.

“We learned long ago that if a child is hungry it’s hard to teach them,” he said. “I don’t think any of our kids are hungry, but when they are under stress and they are worried about their family’s income or it’s causing stress at home, it’s very difficult to have them focus on learning.”

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