A screenshot from the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s COVID-19 dashboard shows current case trends and threat levels as of Monday, Oct. 19, 2020. (Screenshot courtesy Kenai Peninsula Borough School District)

A screenshot from the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s COVID-19 dashboard shows current case trends and threat levels as of Monday, Oct. 19, 2020. (Screenshot courtesy Kenai Peninsula Borough School District)

Southern peninsula schools go to remote learning after increase in COVID-19 cases

Increase in COVID-19 cases pushes Southern Kenai Peninsula into high-risk category

Southern Kenai Peninsula schools will go to 100% remote learning starting today, according to a press release from the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.

With an increase in positive COVID-19 cases on the Southern Kenai Peninsula, the school district raised the risk level for area schools to high on Monday. The southern peninsula region of the school district — from Ninilchik south — has had 22 total new cases of COVID-19 over the last 14 days.

Schools on remote learning will remain so through at least Friday, said Pegge Erkeneff, director of communications for the school district.

“We’re looking closely what will happen with new case counts through the end of the week,” she said.

The daily risk levels can be viewed on the district’s COVID-19 dashboard at covid19.kpbsd.org/dashboard.

Under the school district’s plan, that means 13 southern peninsula schools from Ninilchik south will shift to 100% remote learning.

“The decision to operate Southern Kenai Peninsula schools in High COVID-19 risk, with 100% remote learning, is not only to address concerns for the safety and well-being of our staff and students, but as a school district we play an important role to help our communities mitigate positive COVID-19 spread,” KPBSD Superintendent John O’Brien wrote in a press release on Monday.

Schools in Seldovia, Port Graham and Nanwalek remain in the low-risk status and will continue with in-person learning.

Sports events at Homer High School also will be canceled, said Athletic Director Chris Perk. Volleyball and swimming competitions scheduled for this weekend have been postponed.

With the three main school district regions now at high-risk status, O’Brien also wrote in an email that all elementary, middle and high school activities in those three regions are suspended through Monday. O’Brien wrote this includes inter/intra district competition, intramurals, practices and skill-building practices.

However, Get it & Go free lunches can be picked up at all schools between noon and 1 p.m. Families with students in multiple schools can pick up lunches at one location, Erkeneff said.

Pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and intensive needs students may still attend school on-site. The district will contact those families directly, Erkeneff said.

Aside from the metrics established under the school district’s plan, school officials also consulted with the district’s medical advisory team. The team advised that the southern peninsula schools should go to 100% remote learning, Erkeneff said.

The 13 schools affected are Chapman School in Anchor Point, Fireweed Academy, Homer Flex School, Homer High School, Homer Middle School, Kachemak Selo School, McNeil Canyon Elementary School, Nikolaevsk School, Ninilchik School, Paul Banks Elementary School, Razdolna School, Voznesenka School and West Homer Elementary School.

Erkeneff said school district health officials do not know what is driving the local trend. The Homer High School football program had been in quarantine after two coaches tested positive for COVID-19 on Oct. 7 and Oct. 8 and had just gotten out of quarantine on Monday.

There also were students with positive tests at McNeil Canyon Elementary School and Homer Middle School. The cases were not thought to be related to a specific group, such as a gathering public health officials call a “superspreader” event.

“What we’re hearing across the peninsula now is it’s community spread,” Erkeneff said.

O’Brien also noted the spread of cases.

“Even with our mitigation plans, we have seen an exponential growth of positive cases in our schools this past week,” he wrote in the press release. “My hope is that we can slow the spread, and reopen schools as soon as safely possible. I sincerely apologize for the strain this puts on families, students, staff and businesses in an already stressful pandemic.”

According to the school district’s risk-level metric, regions of the peninsula are put into low-, medium- or high-risk categories based on the number of new cases of COVID-19 identified in the regions over a 14-day period. This model is based on rates of cases per 100,000 population.

The southern peninsula is in high risk if there were 20 or more new cases in the last 14 days or if it had an average daily incidence level of more than 1.4 cases per day. The southern peninsula now has an average daily incidence level of 1.57 cases.

The central peninsula, or Kenai, Nikiski, Soldotna, Sterling and “other North,” had 17 resident cases reported by the state Sunday and Monday for a total of 75 cases in the last 14 days. The central peninsula is high risk when there are 52 or more cases in the last 14 days, medium risk when there are 51 to 26 cases in the last 14 days, and low risk when there are 25 or fewer cases in the last 14 days.

The eastern peninsula, or Seward, had two resident cases reported by the state Sunday and Monday for a total of 11 cases in the last 14 days. The eastern peninsula is at high risk when there are eight or more cases in the last 14 days, medium risk when there are four to seven cases in the last 14 days, and low risk when there are three or fewer cases in the last 14 days.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District has mitigation plans in place for what will happen with in-person education when different regions of the peninsula are in low-, medium- and high-risk levels. Those plans can be found here: kpbsd.k12.ak.us/content.aspx?id=41923.

According to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, statewide, most of Alaska is now at a high-alert level, meaning more than 10 cases per 100,000 people. Southwest Alaska is in the intermediate-risk category and Southeast Alaska outside of Juneau is in the low-risk category.

In the press release, the school district urged people to take these precautions:

• Do the three W’s: Wear a mask, watch your distance and wash your hands.

• Avoid the three C’s: Crowded places, close contact settings and confined or enclosed spaces. Keep contacts limited and social circles small. Avoid indoor gatherings.

• Don’t ride in cars with people who are not in your household bubble.

• Limit your errands and outings.

• Watch out for COVID-19 symptoms. Get tested even if you have just one symptom or mild symptoms.

• Don’t be around others if you are not feeling well. Stay home and isolate immediately.

• If you test positive, let close contacts know so they can protect others.

• Quarantine quickly if you are exposed to COVID-19, for a full 14 days.

Reach Michael Armstrong at marmstrong@homernews.com.

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