When the Kenai Peninsula School District’s students head back to class next week, it will be with abbreviated bus routes, relaxed COVID protocols and a renewed focus on academics.
It will be the district’s second school year with Clayton Holland at the helm; the superintendent said Wednesday he’s ready to see KPBSD return to the same scholastic level as it was during the district’s pre-COVID-19 pandemic era.
Most of the last two years, Holland said, have been focused on the pandemic and its impacts. This school year, Holland said he’s ready to get back to the district’s “high expectations,” both from staff and students. The belief system Holland wants to see in schools this year is that students can accomplish what the district puts before them.
“We’ll meet (students) where they are and we’re going to bring them forward,” Holland said.
The district has worked to minimize learning loss during COVID. Twenty percent of the district’s most recent round of federal COVID-19 relief funds — about $4 million — was required to be set aside to help academically catch up students who fell behind during the pandemic.
The district used some of that money to offer summer programs for students that focused on literacy, credit recovery and social and emotional wellness.
The district’s “Literacy Boost” program, offered during the summer of 2021, provided 16 hours of instruction each week to more than 250 kindergarten through third grade students who received intervention services during the previous school year.
Another chunk of the money is funding KPBSD’s elementary school counselors and being put toward boosting the district’s pool of special education teachers. The district is also looking to bring in instructional aides, who would help students with their core curriculum work, Holland said.
The first day of school will come as the district continues to fill staff vacancies across its 42 schools. KPBSD announced this week that it will be modifying several school bus routes that service central peninsula schools, in response to a lack of bus drivers and high fuel costs.
Holland said that staff recruitment is “slow and steady,” noting that the number of teacher vacancies had dropped from around 23 two weeks ago to about 12 as of Wednesday. As of Friday at around 4:15 p.m. the district had 84 open positions in schools around the district, 37 of which were support staff positions.
The KPBSD Board of Education earlier this month approved raises for the district’s support staff workers, with the goal of incentivizing retention and recruitment of staff “amidst a post-pandemic inflation increase.” He said the district hopes that some of the remaining support staff vacancies may appeal to seasonal workers coming out of summer and into fall.
During that same meeting, board members also approved a “Grow-Your-Own” initiative, through which KPBSD will use some of its federal COVID-19 relief funds to boost the number of special education employees in the district. Through that program, the district will pay up to $7,500 for eligible staff to put toward tuition, books and lab fees as part of a special education teaching program.
“We have people living in our community, who are working with us currently, who understand students with disabilities, who we would like to support (to) get their teacher degree,” Holland said. “We’re supporting that education through this program.”
Moving forward, Holland said he’d like to see staff recruitment be a year-round effort within the district. He’d eventually like to expand the Grow-Your-Own program and to put more focus on keeping students who want to pursue a career in education on the Kenai Peninsula.
“How do we get our own students to stay here and become educators?” Holland asked. “Because the pool from outside is just not there anymore … This is an everywhere issue.”
When it comes to COVID-19, district policies will be more lax than in recent years. The district will not, for example, be doing any contact tracing and will not conduct COVID-19 testing at schools. That is with the exception of cases where testing is necessary, as may be the case for student athletes and travelers to village sites.
“We just ask that your child not come to school if they’re sick, or, if you’re an employee, not to come to work if you’re not feeling well,” Holland said.
As of July 1, however, the district is no longer offering special COVID-19 sick leave for employees. This school year, employees will need to use their normal sick leave in the event of illness. Holland said district employees collectively used more than 7,000 days of COVID sick leave last year. Holland said at-home COVID tests will be available at schools.
“We feel good about what we offered last year,” Holland said. “We didn’t exclude anybody from that.”
As the first day of school approaches, Holland said there is “a lot of optimism” among staff.
“People are excited to have students coming back for the school year,” Holland said. “We look forward to working with all of our students and are confident it’s going to be a great year.”
More information about the upcoming school year can be found on the school district’s website at kpbsd.org.
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at email@example.com.