Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent John O’Brien, bottom left, gives a presentation to members of the Kenai Chamber of Commerce during a virtual luncheon held via Zoom on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020. Also pictured: Kenai Chamber Executive Director Brittany Brown, top left, moderator Merrill Sikorski, top right, and KPBSD Assistant Superintendent Dave Jones, bottom right. (Screenshot)

Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent John O’Brien, bottom left, gives a presentation to members of the Kenai Chamber of Commerce during a virtual luncheon held via Zoom on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020. Also pictured: Kenai Chamber Executive Director Brittany Brown, top left, moderator Merrill Sikorski, top right, and KPBSD Assistant Superintendent Dave Jones, bottom right. (Screenshot)

O’Brien optimistic about kids returning to classrooms

At chamber luncheon, the school superintendent shared details on the district’s path forward.

During the first virtual luncheon hosted by the Kenai Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, John O’Brien, superintendent of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, provided an update on the conclusion of the first half of the school year and laid out what parents and students should expect for the second half.

O’Brien was optimistic about students returning to in-person learning for the spring semester, citing a trend downward in the number of COVID-19 cases reported daily and the local positivity rate for COVID-19 tests.

Nearly all schools in the district have been at 100% remote learning since Oct. 14 when cases began to rise sharply across the state through the holiday season. Recently, however, the number of new cases identified each day as well as the positivity rate have trended downward.

As of O’Brien’s presentation on Wednesday, the Kenai Peninsula had seen 266 cases in the last 14 days with a local positivity rate of 3.26%. O’Brien noted that the borough’s 14-day case total exceeded 700 at its peak in early December, and the borough’s peak positivity rate was around 14%.

At a Dec. 7 meeting, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School Board revised its Smart Start plan to resume in-person learning by “no later” than Jan. 19, but O’Brien said if current trends continue, kids could be back in the classrooms as early as Jan. 11. O’Brien said the district would announce by Jan. 5 if students will be resuming in-person learning early.

“It’s really going to be dependent on what these COVID numbers do post-holidays and into the new year,” O’Brien said during his presentation.

When in-person classes do resume, students from pre-K to sixth grade will attend classes every day as normal, while seventh through 12th grade students will be on two blocks of schedules, according to the district’s Smart Start plan. One block of students will be in the classrooms for three of the five days of every week, while the second block will be in person on the other two days.

School lunches will be provided every day as normal, O’Brien said, and students riding buses to school will be given assigned seats spaced “as far apart as possible” and be required to wear masks while on the bus.

O’Brien was asked by moderator Merrill Sikorski — who fielded questions from chamber members and the media — if the district has seen a negative impact on kids and teachers from the remote learning curriculum, specifically in terms of their educational outcomes. O’Brien said it varies for each individual, but for the most part the district expects students to have some “catching up” to do once they are back in the classroom.

“For some, the kids that are self-directed and have the resources, the remote learning works really well,” O’Brien said. “But for most students, online learning is not something that they chose to do. And a lot of families don’t have the connectivity or the bandwidth at home to make it happen.”

O’Brien also said that the transition to remote learning has been difficult for some teachers as well, especially the ones who had to juggle both in-person and remote students prior to Oct. 14.

Part of the decision to resume in-person learning was the establishment of an “extreme” risk level for schools that goes beyond the high-risk levels currently experienced in the district. When asked if there was a specific number of cases that would determine whether a school or region goes from high to extreme risk, O’Brien said there was no specific number, but that the district would look at a number of factors to make that determination.

Daily case counts, local hospital capacity, local positivity rates and the seven- and 14-day trends of new cases are all metrics that the district will be considering to determine whether a school moves into extreme risk, O’Brien said, which would eliminate the option of in-person learning. Additionally, if clusters of cases are identified at specific schools, those schools could be moved into extreme risk as well.

O’Brien was joined Wednesday by Assistant Superintendent Dave Jones, who is also the district’s chief financial officer. Jones provided updates on the district’s financial situation during O’Brien’s presentation.

The district experienced a significant increase in home-school enrollment due to the ongoing pandemic, but overall enrollment numbers decreased slightly and were lower than what was originally projected.

The projected enrollment for this school year was 8,573 students overall, with an expected 7,763 students attending brick-and-mortar schools and 810 home-school students. As of the district’s count in October, there were 7,759 total students enrolled, with 1,744 enrolled in Connections Homeschool program and only 6,015 enrolled in traditional schools.

The decline in enrollment, coupled with a decline in revenue for the Kenai Peninsula Borough and the State of Alaska, means that the district is looking at a deficit of about $7.2 million for fiscal year 2021, according to Jones’s presentation.

The school district will host public forums on its budget for the upcoming year in mid-February, O’Brien said. More information on those forums will be available in the coming weeks.

O’Brien also provided a brief update on the district’s search for his replacement as superintendent.

O’Brien is set to retire at the end of this school year, and the school board is screening applicants for the position in coordination with a private consulting firm, McPherson and Jacobson.

On Jan. 25, members of the public will have the opportunity to meet the final slate of candidates — likely in a virtual setting, O’Brien said. The following day, the school board will conduct its official interviews with the candidates, which will also be available for public viewing.

Reach reporter Brian Mazurek at bmazurek@peninsulaclarion.com.

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