Kenai Peninsula Borough schools weren’t in session Friday because of parent-teacher conferences. But students haven’t been in classrooms for weeks because of COVID-19. With just a handful of days until Election Day, five of the peninsula’s young political leaders sat down with the Clarion to talk about everything from partisan politics to the PFD and their plans for a brighter future.
Tegan Retzer showed off her “I Voted” sticker during the virtual interview, which was held Friday via Zoom. She and Selma Casagranda voted for the first time Friday morning. Retzer serves as student body president at Seward High School and is the student representative to the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District (KPBSD) school board. Casagranda serves as Seward High School’s student body vice president and recently ran for a seat on the Seward City Council.
Elections in 2020 have been forced to adapt to the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, but Retzer said because it was her first time voting she couldn’t say whether or not the process seemed more difficult than usual.
“It was easy; it was fun,” Retzer said.
Olivia Davis and Quinn Cox are 17 and are not able to vote this year. Davis serves as the student body vice president at Soldotna High School and is the student representative to KPBSD’s information committee. Cox is a junior at Soldotna High and is the student representative to the Soldotna City Council.
Davis said that even though she isn’t old enough to vote, she’s been active during this election cycle as an intern for U.S. Senate candidate Al Gross’ campaign and has spent a lot of time making phone calls and helping get people their absentee ballots.
“The things that I would do to be able to cast a ballot in this election are quite numerous but, you know, I’m doing what I can,” Davis said.
When it comes to today’s political climate, there was a general consensus among the group that things aren’t as simple as “Republican” or “Democrat.” Davis said that she doesn’t like either party, but that she’s “left-leaning” and is surprised at the backlash Democratic policies face when there are more centrist compared to the rest of the world. Casagranda said that the bifurcation of American politics isn’t true to the country’s founding.
“There’s definitely things that I agree with on a Republican end and there’s things that I agree with on the Democrats’ end, but I think something that we need to change is that we need to start listening to each other,” Casagranda said. “Arguments are healthy and they’re supposed to happen because you’re supposed to learn something from it.”
One issue the group addressed at length was the environment.
Retzer said that she has been trying to learn more about the impact potential oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would have on Native villages and wildlife. Davis said that while oil has played an important role in Alaska’s economy, the state needs to start looking into more sustainable energy sources, such as hydroelectric and wind power.
“Considering how vast our state is in terms of resources, I don’t see why protecting it is such a contentious issue up here,” Davis said. “If we were to drill in a lot of the places that big companies want to drill in, we’re going to kill massive amounts of fish, and that is also a large part of our economy.”
Cox said that even though oil makes money, the state’s permanent fund could be used to help Alaska make money elsewhere.
Kaegan Koski, who is a senior at River City Academy, said the state is at a crossroads when it comes to the PFD and that a decision will have to be made on whether it is more important than other government programs.
“I think that while the PFD does serve as a pick-me-up sometimes for poor families, there are a lot of ways that we can be using that money to be boosting poor communities in Alaska, through education to boost the future, through funding food systems and other programs like that,” Koski said. “I think that the PFD is something to be protected, but only to a certain point.”
Seward High School, Soldotna High School and River City Academy are just three of the 35 KPBSD schools that are currently operating 100% remotely due to growing COVID-19 case numbers on the peninsula and around the state. Over the past week, the state has reported more than 2,700 new cases, including more than 200 on the peninsula.
Davis said that she thinks Alaska handled the pandemic well at the onset, but that people have stopped taking COVID-19 seriously and Gov. Mike Dunleavy needs to act.
“We got a little nervous when there were 25 [cases] in a day in the whole state and now we’re having upwards of 300 cases, and our governor still says it’s no big deal,” Davis said. “It is a big deal and there needs to be something done about it.”
Cox agreed and questioned resistance to wearing masks.
“I mean, even if you don’t believe in wearing masks, what’s the harm of putting a mask on to walk into the store and buy your groceries or whatever?” Cox said. “If it’s making other people safe, or at least feel more comfortable, then why not? It’s just bettering the community.”
Casagranda, who plays on her school’s volleyball team, said that she has to wear a mask during practices and games and while uncomfortable, she understands how it can protect the people around her.
“When you’re breathing in, you’re breathing hard and the mask goes into your mouth and in your nose and it kind of feels like you’re suffocating,” Casagranda said. “That’s dramatic, but it’s also like, if I had COVID, I wouldn’t ever want to give it to somebody else so it’s just like this constant self battle of morals.”
In the meantime, classes are being held 100% remotely, which everyone agreed has been difficult. Since the start of the school year, schools have been in person or remote depending on a region’s 14-day case rate and positivity trend. Taking things week by week was a bad plan to begin with, Koski said, and the current system has been a disservice to students and teachers.
“I think every grade, every aspect of school could have benefited from us just creating a stable system right off the bat, or even just trying to develop one right off the bat, instead of doing this switch back and forth thing where kids are getting thrown out of their comfort zone, which they need to be able to focus and to be able to learn,” Koski said.
Davis and Cox said that having teachers as parents has shown them how stressful the school year has been for teachers too, as they work to adapt to a learning environment that is constantly changing.
“She’s found a way to do it, which is what a lot of the teachers did,” Cox said of his mom, who teaches ceramics at Soldotna High School. “But I don’t if they planned for it to be the entire year online.”
While most agreed that teachers were making the most of a difficult situation, they also said students’ mental health during the pandemic has not been prioritized the way it should be.
“They’re so focused on getting all of their teaching across and making sure that we get everything we need to know in our learning material that it can make it really hard for them to realize that a lot of times we aren’t able to get our work done as much as they’d like us to,” Retzer said. “Everything seems to have stopped.”
Despite all the uncertainty in the world, everyone is already thinking about life after high school.
Retzer said she is interested in pursuing a degree in economics or political science and would like to have a career in public service. Davis said that she originally wanted to work in the medical field, but that she experienced a shift in what she wanted to do after George Floyd was killed by police officers in Minnesota. Davis said she’s now looking into pursuing environmental studies with a political science base and eventually would like to go to law school.
“Maybe one day I could be a senator, you know?” Davis said.
Casagranda said she is planning to go into business and wants to one day use business to change the world for the better. Cox said he isn’t sure what he wants to do after high school, but that the experience of being in high school during the pandemic has given him and his peers a unique perspective that he would like to continue to amplify. Koski said he wants to go into software engineering, data science and public service to try and make the world a better place.
“As cheesy as it is to say, we are the future, and I think that if we educate ourselves now that will definitely work in our favor in the future,” Retzer said. “I think we should try to stay as educated as we can be and as connected as we can be.”
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at email@example.com.