Summer is just getting started, but parents, staff and district administration are already wrapped up in planning for the start of school in the fall.
Students who play sports in the fall normally begin practicing with their teams months before school starts in August. However, with the increasing number of COVID-19 cases on the peninsula, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is still determining when activities will be allowed to begin.
District administration is still “contemplating if and when” school facilities will be open to the public, Pegge Erkeneff, communications director for the district, said Friday.
“There are several elements to consider, which includes community risk levels, sanitization and extra custodial staff needed,” she said.
At the June 1 Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education meeting, Superintendent John O’Brien said the district was hoping to allow open air activities to start “soon,” and indoor activities had a potential start day of July 1. With the rise of cases in the last two weeks, however, the district is still determining start dates for activities.
The borough’s number of active cases was 73 as of Saturday, with 33 peninsula residents recovered. Statewide there are 237 active cases and 405 recoveries.
When school starts in August, students may or may not be back in their normal classrooms. A 20-person work group is currently discussing possible scenarios for how education in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District will look in the fall, Superintendent John O’Brien said during a district presentation at the June 2 Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly meeting.
He said the work group is working through scenarios for three risk levels based on community spread in all areas of the peninsula: low, medium and high.
He said if areas are low risk come August, school will be almost business as usual, with extra cleaning and sanitizing measures put in place.
In a medium-risk situation, O’Brien said students may be split into groups, with some students attending school physically for the first half of the week, another group attending the last half of the week and a deep cleaning day in the middle of the week to ensure students can be distant inside classrooms.
He said in a high-risk situation, school will likely be closed to students and staff and moved to a remote setting, like it was this spring.
Remote learning didn’t work for many of the district’s families and students, O’Brien said during his presentation with the assembly June 2. He said the district was unable to reach “some” students to help facilitate remote learning.
“So we did have some students, unfortunately, that we’re expecting will have some significant regression when they come back in the fall,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien said the district distributed 1,511 Chromebooks to help students learn from home this spring.
The district is getting “lots of pressure” from parent groups, O’Brien said at the June 2 assembly meeting.
Tammie Miller, a parent from the Soldotna area, called into the June 1 school board meeting to ask the board to allow students to practice sports outside. She said in the fall she wants “to see all kids in school with minimal disruptions” and to see sports carry on “without any real disruptions either.”
“There’s no reason kids should not be able to go outside and play organized sports with their coaches this summer,” Miller said.
At the June 1 meeting, O’Brien said that over the past few weeks, the district has received “a flurry of emails and communications” from parents and community members “insisting” that the district open their facilities “immediately.”
“We understand that people believe this is a simple matter and want access to our facilities right away,” O’Brien said. “Please note that COVID-19 cases have increased significantly on the peninsula.”
O’Brien said the district is monitoring local cases on a daily and weekly basis.
“We want our students to be able to participate in summer activities and we want our public to access our pools and other facilities,” O’Brien said. “However, we need to make sure that in doing so that public health mandates and advisories are followed and that we have safe mitigation plans in place to protect our students, our staff and our community.”
At the end of the school board meeting, board member Mike Illg said the new coronavirus pandemic has “no light switch” to get “back to normal.”
“As Dr. Zink says, open doesn’t mean over,” he said. “We have to pursue this very carefully very cautiously, because safety is the first priority for everything.”
He said he applauds the district for taking “a very slow process” for navigating the COVID-19 pandemic.
O’Brien says he’s meeting weekly with superintendents from the state’s five largest school districts to “compare notes” on how each district is planning for the 2020-2021 school year.
• By Victoria Petersen, For the Peninsula Clarion