The more things change, the more they stay the same.
In perhaps one of the most anticipated first days of school in many years, students of the Homer area and southern Kenai Peninsula were able to retain some sense of normalcy on Monday and head back to class, both inside the schools and from the comfort of their homes.
All schools on the southern Kenai Peninsula were able to open on Monday for both in-person learning and remote learning. Some schools, like those at the head of Kachemak Bay, actually opened earlier this month.
Schools on the central peninsula are in a different boat. Higher community transmission of COVID-19 in that region pushed all schools on the central peninsula into the red, or high-risk, zone in the system used by the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District to determine school safety protocols. Because of this, the district made the decision to close central peninsula schools to in-person education until Sept. 8 and start 100% remote learning on Monday for most grades.
Some younger grades were allowed to go to school in person on the central peninsula, however.
As long as the southern peninsula stays at low- or medium-risk level, school can progress with in-person learning in the buildings with safety precautions in place, such as social distancing and mask-wearing for all staff and students in third grade and above.
As of Wednesday morning, the southern peninsula had seven new cases of COVID-19 in the past 14 days. The region would have to see 10 new cases in the last 14 days to move into the medium-risk category, and 20 or more new cases over 14 days to move into high risk.
On Monday, students tumbled out of their parents’ cars, loaded off buses and logged on to their home computers. It was a very different looking first day of school, but area principals said it went a little better than expected.
Homer High School
“Better than I thought it would go, to tell you the truth,” Homer High School Principal Doug Waclawski said of the first day back.
The high schoolers did a relatively good job of remembering to wear their face coverings and keep their distance from one another, Waclawski said. A few reminders had to be given out, especially during the lunch period when many students moved outside to eat. Some forgot to put their masks back on after eating.
“They’re getting it,” Waclawski said of the face coverings and distancing.
Classes were altered to allow for more space between students, with some classes even being held outdoors. Swing choir was held outside on Monday morning, Waclawski said, and the regular choir class will be held outside when possible, and in the school auditorium otherwise.
Waclawski said the school did not have solid numbers on how many students to actually expect through the doors on Monday, so some of the class sizes were a little larger than expected and did not quite meet the needs for social distancing. Moving forward, those larger classes will be broken up into two, Waclawski said, or moved to larger rooms like the auditorium.
One such class was Alaska History just after lunch, on the second floor. The classroom itself is not spacious, and the class had close to 20 students in person, with four scheduled to tune in remotely via Zoom.
“There are some rooms that you can’t do the full 6 feet of social distancing,” Waclawski said.
That’s where the masks come in.
“Most of the classes were just about perfect,” he added.
There were some first-day glitches to be dealt with from the teaching perspective, Waclawski said. Things like students having trouble logging on to Zoom to participate in their classes in real time, but those issues were solved relatively quickly and easily, he said.
Waclawski credited the teachers with altering their education to accommodate remote learners and pushing through the technology issues.
“It was a very smooth first day,” he said. “The kids were ready to be here.”
In Anchor Point, Principal Josh Hinds and his staff serve students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Hinds said the students, from the older grades down to the younger ones, did a good job on Monday and Tuesday getting used to wearing their face coverings in common areas of the school, and sticking within their smaller cohorts of fellow students. He said the school worked to get information about the mask policy out to parents ahead of time so that families knew what the expectations would be.
Students at Chapman wear masks around the school, but are able to take them off while outside and during outdoor physical education.
“We really appreciate our families being so understanding during these times,” Hinds said.
The school also posted several videos to its Facebook page before the start of the year, showing parents how everything would work at Chapman, from the student pick up and drop off to entering and exiting the buildings with extra sanitation measures.
Some furniture has been removed from classrooms to make more room for spaced out desks, and Hinds said markings have been put all over the school to remind students to keep 6 feet away from each other.
“The kids are doing really well as far as getting used to those procedures,” he said.
With the use of smaller student cohorts, Hinds said the school doesn’t have a lot of mixing between classes and age groups. The kids are getting outside two to three times a day.
So far, it looks like around 10-15% of Chapman students are opting for the distance learning option from home, Hinds said. That’s a flexible option, in which parents can move their children from the home to the school or vice versa if one option isn’t working out.
Teachers at Chapman are creating lessons to be taught both in the classroom and relayed to their remote learners at home, which creates extra work.
“It’s been a real challenge for our staff to start basically teaching in two different modalities at the same time,” Hinds said.
They have risen to the occasion, though. Hinds praised his staff for their professionalism and the work they’ve put into making in-person and at-home lessons. The school has digital tools that can be sent home with remote learners, as well as more traditional materials like textbooks that parents can bring home for students.
For Hinds, this school year will be all about grace, kindness and community, he said.
“The teachers are just trying to do their best for the kids for sure,” he said.
Split between two campuses, the students of Little and Big Fireweed Academy also had a unique start to the school year. Principal Todd Hindman echoed the sentiment that the first two days of school went well overall.
“There are definitely kinks to work out,” he said.
At Fireweed, students wear masks in common areas, but are able to take them off when in class if they are able to appropriately socially distance. Students under third grade are also exempt from the district rule, though Hindman said some of Fireweed’s younger students wear them voluntarily.
With younger students, Hindman said staff did have to give a few reminders during the first two days about maintaining distance from other students. It’s especially hard on Big Fireweed Students (who are taught on the West Homer Elementary School campus) who have friends in other cohorts or from West Homer.
Fireweed Academy has used cohorts to keep smaller groups of students together and separated from other cohorts, to prevent too much mixing of different age groups, even when they’re outside.
At Big Fireweed in West Homer Elementary, some students eat lunch in the cafeteria while others eat in their classrooms, to prevent more mixing during the lunch period, Hindman said.
At Little Fireweed, each grade has a separate lunch period and a separate recess time. Also at Little Fireweed, the school has made some prepared outdoor learning spaces to get the kids out of the building a little more often.
“That’s going to be a project that continues for the next several weeks,” Hindman said.
Students have learned to sanitize their hands when entering or exiting rooms and buildings, as well as when to wear their face coverings and when it’s alright to take them off.
Across both Little and Big Fireweed combined, Hindman said about 50% of the students are coming to school in person and about 50% are doing remote learning at home.
“It definitely is a challenge for the teachers,” he said of the remote learning component.
Unlike with older students, for whom it might be easier to join a live class via Zoom from their home as it’s being taught, younger students tend to have their lessons uploaded to an online platform of the school’s preference to complete at home. Some teachers at Fireweed are recording their lessons and uploading the videos, Hindman said, but there are some technological kinks to work out.
The platform the school is using is called Seesaw. Hindman said teachers and families are used to the platform because it’s the same one the school used during the emergency switch to remote learning in the spring, but that it does have time and file size limitations that complicate lesson uploading for teachers.
The school also developed comprehensive binders for all students, whether they are learning at home or in person, which Hindman said include all lessons and school work they’ll need for the week. This is to prepare remote learners for class, and can also be used in the event the entire school is forced to transition to 100% remote learning in the future.
Overall, Hindman said the start of the year went well and that teachers are connecting with their in person students and their students at home.
“Of course I think everybody’s really happy to see the kids back in school, that are with us in person,” he said.