(March 23, 2020) – When remote villages began closing to outside travelers to guard against the coronavirus, Alaska Christian College shifted their plans for sending students home. They had intended to close the school last Thursday, but faculty and staff pivoted to help students pack in the middle of the night Tuesday to help them get home, making multiple trips through a heavy snowstorm to the Anchorage airport 150 miles away.
“After 36 hours of driving through snowy roads, standing by with guest pass tickets, using miles and points, weather delays, missed flights, and full planes, 100% of our students are home in their villages, with a family member, or have a safe place to stay!” school president Keith Hamilton wrote in an email to supporters of the college.
About 80 percent of the 105 students live off the road system and had to be flown to their villages.
The college, located in Soldotna, is owned and operated by the Alaska Conference and serves predominantly Alaska Native students from villages across the state. It works intentionally to help them make the transition from village life to college.
Closing villages to incoming travelers can decrease the spread of the virus, but some of those communities may be as far as 100 miles from a hospital and are reachable only by plane. The influenza epidemic of 1918 nearly wiped out entire villages.
From 10 p.m. Tuesday night to 1 a.m. Wednesday morning, ACC staff helped students pack belongings and transport them via two 15-passenger vans to the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. “Those same vans returned to ACC and immediately left again for Anchorage with the next batch of students flying to rural Alaska or dropping off those living on the road system,” Hamilton said.
The last van returned to the school lot at 7 p.m. Wednesday said Eric Johnson, vice president for advancement, who served as one of the drivers.
“This was a painful day for our students,” Hamilton said afterward. “We have heard them express anger at the virus, pain, uncertainty, frustration, and deep sadness in leaving their college and friends.”
The college, which was established in 2001 with 22 students, has not offered distance education before, but Hamilton says they are “up to the task.” The greatest need for students, he added, is to access enough internet bandwidth to participate in online classes. “We are having to purchase more products and materials to make this work, keep our staff working from home while reaching students, and trying to figure out the best delivery options for their academic success,” Hamilton said.
School departments other than student life will continue to be fully operational, with staff working remotely. The New Hope Counseling Center on campus will offer counseling to students via Tele-Health.
Those adaptations will produce a strain on ACC’s budget. “We are really in a financial crisis,” Hamilton said. The school will launch an appeal in the coming weeks. To give online now, click here.