Jeff Helminiak / Peninsula Clarion                                Mollie Kirk and her daughter, Peyton, pose for a photo Monday for kindergarten teacher Cynthia Fudzinski at Mountain View Elementary School in Kenai.

Jeff Helminiak / Peninsula Clarion Mollie Kirk and her daughter, Peyton, pose for a photo Monday for kindergarten teacher Cynthia Fudzinski at Mountain View Elementary School in Kenai.

Back to school

‘My troubles of the last 4 months were gone’

Monday on the playground at Mountain View Elementary School, Donna Schneiders was teaching her kindergarten class about social distancing when she asked, “Are we ever going to make mistakes?”

“No!” came the reply from several students.

Though Schneiders went on to explain that mistakes would be made and that was OK as long as they were not on purpose, the optimism of the first day of school — even in the era of the new coronavirus pandemic — was firmly in place.

“I think everything went super well,” Karl Kircher, starting his seventh year as Mountain View Elementary principal, said. “All the parents showed up and were super positive.

“Everybody was happy to be here and happy to do what we asked to have kids come to school safely. Wearing a mask, social distancing — everybody was happy to go along with those.”

Kindergarteners, along with special education pre-K, Title I pre-K and certain groups of students in special education, were the only students allowed back in central peninsula schools Monday.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District closed the rest of its central peninsula classrooms to on-site learning last week after a spike of positive COVID-19 tests put the central peninsula at high-risk level. Superintendent John O’Brien said schools will not open before Sept. 8.

Students at southern peninsula, eastern peninsula and remote community schools all returned to class Monday at low-risk level.

Mountain View Elementary normally houses students in pre-K through fifth grade. Monday, the school had three kindergarten classes and another Title I pre-kindergarten in session. Kircher said that was about 50 kids in the building, compared to the over 400 students in the building when the coronavirus shut down schools in spring.

Kircher said the pre-K and kindergarten teachers were the envy of the teachers of the other grades because they had the energy of students back in their classrooms.

“My heart felt full hearing the screaming on the playground and laughing and learning in the classroom,” Kircher said. “My troubles of the last four months were gone. It brought me back to the good old days, with kids making Mountain View an awesome, happy place to be.”

While the numbers are still shaking out, Kircher said enrollment will be down significantly this year. He said students are considered enrolled in Mountain View if they are doing in-person learning or 100% remote learning there.

Kircher said he has heard from parents who are using Connections Homeschool due to the need for stability or health concerns. He added most said they were sad to be leaving and hoped to be back next year.

The principal also found a silver lining to not welcoming back all his students Monday.

“I’d sure say it was super beneficial just to have this kind of soft opening,” he said. “We got to try out some of the processes and protocols with less kids in the school.”

For the first day of school, the parking lot was divided into three lanes — one for each of the kindergarten classes. Each check-in spot had a battery-operated bubble machine to pay homage to the commercial-size bubble machine Mountain View normally rolls out for the first day of school.

Students were checked in at tables, then moved to an area with just those in their classroom on the playground. Students then entered the building.

Kircher said keeping each classroom in separate groups — or cohorts — is one of the key coronavirus mitigation measures schools are implementing.

“We’ve all been asked in life to limit social circles,” he said. “One of the main protections at school is kids limiting their social circles. Kids will just be with kids in their classroom when they’re eating lunch or they are at recess.”

The district announced the central peninsula had gone to high-risk level on Aug. 18. Unlike the closure in the spring, Kircher said the school has had time to prepare for a closure.

Kircher said his teachers got on the phone Thursday and Friday and contacted parents, getting them on Seesaw, an app for teaching and buildingwide communication.

According to Kircher, Mountain View also now has consistency in remote education platforms. Kindergarten through second grade is on Seesaw, while third through fifth grade is on Google Classroom.

Friday and Monday, Mountain View also was able to push 30-plus Chromebooks out to parents who had applied for them. Kircher also said teachers have already worked virtual learning into their classroom plans, making it easier to go to virtual learning in the event school gets closed down. The school also knows which families don’t have internet and had packets ready for the first day of school.

Kircher said he got a lot of phone calls Monday, but they were not negative.

“The deluge of calls has been, ‘Hey, we’ve gone red. I want to make sure my kid is hooked up to what’s going on there,’” he said.

The principal gave credit to all his staff for making Monday go well.

Kitchen staff had a busy day. Winona Rich, kitchen manager, and Helen Sloan, cashier and fruit and vegetable manager, both sat outside from noon to 1 p.m. to distribute Get It and Go Meals curbside. They also had to feed the kids inside the building.

“It’s crazy,” Rich said. “We’ve been literally doing circles in the kitchen.”

Rich said staff are happy to be helping the community during this time. There were 65 signed up to pick up breakfast and lunch Monday, but only 12 showed up.

Rich said she realizes people are still getting into a routine, but pointed out some of the food that isn’t picked up is thrown away.

“People have to realize we’re making this food and we may have to throw it away due to time and temperature abuse,” she said.

Office staff and teachers had to handle all the phone calls. Janitors had to set up the lanes in the parking lot. They also had already worked for a week and a half to get all the classrooms reconfigured for maximum social distancing.

“That Herculean effort didn’t vaporize just because we went to remote learning Wednesday,” Kircher said. “The effort just switched in a different direction.”

At the end of the day, the optimism from the morning playground lesson on social distancing was still in place.

“Teachers are excited and positive and trying to figure out how to make this work for everybody,” Kircher said.

Back to school

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