When Kenai Middle School welcomes roughly 260 students to on-site learning, it will be with open doors, spacing between desks and opportunities to disinfect around every corner.
The school is one of many in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District preparing for the return of more students to in-person learning on Monday, when new “high-risk” level operations approved by the KPBSD Board of Education will be implemented. Among other things, the new operations outline enhanced COVID-19 mitigation protocols and how students will return to classrooms.
Students in grades pre-K through sixth will be allowed to resume on-site learning five days a week even if their school is at high risk. Students in grades seven through 12 will resume on-site learning on an A/B schedule. Previously, schools operated 100% remotely, with the exception of pre-K, kindergarten and special education/intensive needs students, while at high risk.
Kenai Middle School includes students in sixth through eighth grades, meaning some students will return five days a week while others will return on an A/B schedule. Kenai Middle School Principal Vaughn Dosko said that their projected enrollment was just over 400, but that they saw about 50 students leave for programs like Connections, the district’s home-school program, other home-school programs or religious schools. Of the roughly 340 students still attending Kenai Middle, about 260 will be attending classes in person each day starting Monday.
One of the most noticeable additions to the school is the baskets and tubs of rags labeled “clean” and “dirty” strategically placed in hallway alcoves and classrooms. The rags are for students and others to disinfect their work spaces before they sit down. Upon entering a classroom, for example, a student will take a rag by the door and spray it with hypochlorous acid, which Kenai Middle School Head Custodian Mike Tilly called “the COVID killer,” to wipe down their desk.
“Part of what we try to do here is create a new culture of clean,” said Tilly, joking that, like a hotel, there are always fresh towels.
One of his handiest gadgets is an ionizing gun, which he uses to disinfect surfaces with hypochlorous acid. Part of what makes it so effective, Tilly said, is that it is electrostatic, meaning that when he goes to disinfect something like a round handle, the disinfectant wraps all the way around it.
“It sticks to horizontal surfaces really, really well, so like in the mornings I’m going to be doing every locker handle in the school,” Tilly said.
One of the biggest challenges Kenai Middle faced, Dosko said, was trying to figure out how to make their spaces bigger so that social distancing could be observed. During the warmer season, he said, the City of Kenai provided tents that extended the space in which students could eat lunch from the indoor cafeteria to outside. When it comes to classrooms, however, Dosko said they had to get creative.
“When you’re working in a brick building, you can’t stretch out,” Dosko said.
Their solution? To remove nonessential furniture from classrooms, allowing desks to be spaced further apart. Dosko said the school purchased a conex box to store the excess furniture, such as couches and bean bag chairs, in the meantime.
Such changes can be seen in the classroom of resource teacher Sarah Hutchison, who said she used to have longer tables and more computers. A new addition to her room, however, is the table loaded down with hand sanitizer, towels and a bottle of hypochlorous acid by the door. Ambient string lights give the room a warm glow.
Something Dosko and Tilly said they have tried to keep is a sense of normalcy for students amid all the changes, and Hutchison said that extends to teachers, who were allowed to lay out their own classrooms.
“What’s been really nice is that sense of normalcy for our students and for us as staff and then having the ability to know our classrooms and set up a system that we feel is appropriate for our settings,” Hutchison said.
Because the number of students Hutchison has in her room at any given time can change, she said, that flexibility allowed her to develop a system that was unique to her work flow.
When it comes to wearing masks, Dosko, Tilly and Hutchison said they have had no problems with students complying. Dosko said that part of the reason is because students are willing to do whatever to see their friends again. Hutchison said that in her classroom, students have gotten creative with how they decorate their masks, and that they’ve become something of a fashion statement.
“When they get new masks, it’s a big deal,” Hutchison said.
Much of Kenai Middle’s other mitigation efforts can be seen in the attention they pay to the little things. Doors in the building, for example, are held open with rope to eliminate handles as a high touchpoint. Water fountains have been disabled save for the water bottle filling feature, which Tilly said has seen frequent use in response to the school’s “Bring Your Own Bottle” campaign. More lunch tables will be set out so that students can use every other seat. Even how air circulates through the building has been modified. Districtwide, ionizers were put in schools’ air handling systems, which Tilly and Dosko said clean the air flowing through classrooms and hallways.
“I don’t know if we’ve overthought it, but we’ve put a lot of thought into it,” Dosko said.
“We’re willing to do about anything we can to get the kids back and keep everybody safe,” Tilly said. “We took a lot of things into consideration.”
Dosko said having so many students work remotely has been especially difficult because of how close-knit the school community is but that bringing kids back into the classroom will be beneficial for the mental health of students and their families.
“We have a culture of family here and, you know, when you’re family, you want to see each other every day? Kids wanted to be here every day and they’ve been bummed out about that.”
Dosko encouraged parents who are unsure about whether or not it is safe for their children to come back to school to stop by Kenai Middle and see the mitigation efforts that have been put in place for themselves.
“We’re open and excited,” Dosko said. “Monday should be good.”