The logo for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is displayed inside the George A. Navarre Borough Admin Building on Thursday, July 22, 2021 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

The logo for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is displayed inside the George A. Navarre Borough Admin Building on Thursday, July 22, 2021 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

COVID hurdles prompt district to expand early release days

In all, the change will result in an additional loss of 4.5 hours of school time.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District will add three early release days for students and shift previously scheduled Wednesday early release days to Friday beginning on Jan. 21 until spring break, the district announced Friday.

The move comes in response to staff burnout caused by personnel shortages and the ongoing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, KPBSD Superintendent Clayton Holland said Friday.

“This has been a heavy lift for everyone,” Holland wrote in a letter to families and staff. “I’ve found there’s a significant need moving forward to plan, collaborate, review data, and design targeted instruction to meet the individual needs of our students and address the learning gaps many are experiencing. We need to catch up with student contact updates and deep cleaning of our schools.”

In all, the change will result in an additional loss of 4.5 hours of school time. Moving early dismissal days from Wednesdays to Fridays, Holland said Friday, will minimize the impact to the many students who are already leaving early on Friday due to extracurricular activities like sports.

It’s also the district’s hope that the change will free up time for teachers to plan lessons, collaborate with other grade levels and subject matters, to communicate with parents and to review student data in a way that informs classroom instruction. In the case of school nurses, so much of their day-to-day work is spent on COVID-19 — whether contact tracing or enforcement of the district’s symptom-free protocol — that it can be difficult to fit in other daily tasks, Holland said.

Holland has maintained since taking over the district last summer that his top priority for the school year would be keeping schools open. That was in response to community frustration with the district’s move between remote and in-person instruction multiple times during the 2020-2021 school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The announcement comes about three weeks after the district implemented new COVID-19 close contact protocols for staff and students, which Holland said Friday have successfully kept “a few hundred” students in school that would have been in quarantine under the previous policy.

Under that policy, which went into effect on Nov. 29, district staff and students identified as a close contact of someone who tests positive for COVID-19 may have the option to return to school immediately. Prior to Nov. 29, people identified as close contacts followed different protocols depending on whether or not they were fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or had been positive for COVID-19 in the past 90 days.

Holland said Friday, however, that keeping schools open has caused its own challenges: Overworked teachers and staff are struggling. That’s due in part to personnel shortages that he said mirror nationwide trends, but also because transitioning classrooms back into a daily routine after prolonged remote learning last year has been an adjustment.

“There was that talk of ‘It might be my last year,’” Holland said Friday.

The KPBSD Board of Education approved changes to how the district recruits substitute staff earlier this year, such as by increasing pay, eliminating a requirement that applicants provide three references and replacing some education requirements. Holland said Friday that the changes have helped recruit more certified staff.

“It has alleviated a lot of what we were experiencing,” Holland said.

He went on to say that the new early dismissal protocols are meant to be a middle ground between some of the more drastic changes implemented by other districts around the country and minimize disruption to students’ learning. Holland said the district will evaluate the effectiveness of changing early release days — such as whether attendance goes up or student academic metrics go up — via surveys circulated among students, staff and families in March.

“We do want to measure (if it’s) making a difference,” he said.

Schools across the country dealing with similar staffing shortages have responded in different ways. Some have shut down entirely, such as in Seattle, or moved back to remote learning, as in Montana. Others have similarly eliminated some of their substitute eligibility requirements as a way to boost recruitment.

Concerns about teacher burnout within KPBSD have been raised throughout the school year, including frequently by Kenai Peninsula Education Association President Nathan Erfurth, who has spoken on the issue at multiple school board meetings.

Erfurth said Saturday that while 4.5 hours may not seem like a lot of time, staff should be thought of like a truck carrying more weight than it can carry because of the impacts of the COVD-19 pandemic.

“You can only go so far before the machines and people that you rely on break,” Erfurth said. “Our systems can only sustain so much. Asking for four-and-a-half hours over the course of a quarter rather doesn’t sound like a lot, but it might be enough to stop things from breaking.”

A reliable, consistent chunk of time set aside for teachers on Fridays, Erfurth said, will allow teachers more time to prepare lessons or offer one-on-one tutoring with students. Lesson planning is an area that has been hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, Erfurth said. Staffing shortages means that in addition to teaching their own classes, teachers have had to take over classes for teachers out because of COVID illness.

“The teacher who’s covering for another colleague is not only going to have to do her own planning and prep and all of that and then additionally, the online materials that she’s got to prepare for her students that are stuck in quarantine or whatever else,” Erfurth said. “She then also has to, later that night, go and prepare all of her colleague’s materials.”

Erfurth said that, like Holland, he’s heard from “probably … a dozen” teachers who have resignation letters ready to go when contracts come out because the school year has been “too much.” Expectations of teachers, he said, needs to be balanced with the resources those teachers have.

“It doesn’t matter what people think teachers should be capable of,” Erfurth said. “People have told us we should be capable of saving the world and all of society for decades now, and as it turns out, we can’t do that without resources and time and support to do so.”

The additional time on Fridays, he said, is a win for teachers and for students.

“Prep time equals more effectiveness,” Erfurth said.

Still, Holland said Friday that the district realizes the new early release policy may inconvenience some families. To help ease the transition, the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Kenai Peninsula will open early on Fridays to give students whose parents work a place to go. In situations where a family does not have child care options due to the early release, Holland said principals have been instructed to work with those families.

Ultimately, Erfurth said that the additional time, while it may not seem like a lot, will allow teachers to do a better job than they are already.

“This additional hour and a half each Friday over the course of quarter three gives us the ability to be more effective,” Erfurth said. “Prep time multiplies our effectiveness, and that’s why we always protect it as much as we can, and that’s why this is a good move forward. Ultimately, it’s not that we’re tired. It’s that we’re trying to do the best possible job for students.”

The district’s full announcement can be found on the KPBSD communications blog at communications.blogs.kpbsd.k12.ak.us.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

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