After the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District announced that it would not be hosting proms due to the COVID-19 pandemic, parents decided to take matters into their own hands.
Parent-led proms are being planned in Kenai, Homer, Nikiski and Soldotna at least, with many organizers using social media to help coordinate efforts.
Bridget Grieme, who said she has two kids in high school, is one of the moms helping organize a prom for Kenai Central High School juniors and seniors. Grieme said the parent group has been meeting on a regular basis since February to help brainstorm themes, find a venue and set up catering, but that the event would not have been possible without the support they have received from people in the community.
“This is something for us to give to them,” Grieme said.
Grassroots efforts to have proms despite district cancellations are the product of monthslong tensions between the district and some community members, who have long protested COVID mitigation protocols that they say are not all necessary and detrimental to the mental health of students.
In making the decision to not have school-sponsored proms this year, KPBSD Communications Director Pegge Erkeneff said the district wanted to devote the majority of its efforts toward making sure graduation ceremonies could happen in person. Graduations last spring were offered in modified formats due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Erkeneff said that this year the district is planning to host in-person graduation ceremonies with COVID-19 mitigation protocols in place.
Erkeneff also clarified that the district’s primary jurisdiction is over school-sponsored events. In a situation where a student tests positive and contact tracing is conducted, the district may become aware of other situations where the student could have been exposed, but students who are worried about having to quarantine through certain in-person events may now be able to test out of quarantine. Students 16 and older also qualify for the Pfizer and BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.
The only routine COVID-19 testing currently conducted by KPBSD among students is among athletes as part of Alaska School Activities Association protocols.
The district modified its quarantine protocols to align with updated guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which include considerations for people who are vaccinated and who test negative after a certain period of time.
Under those protocols, if the person being asked to quarantine does not show symptoms 10 days after the day they were exposed, they no longer have to quarantine. If the person is vaccinated, they do not need to quarantine. If the person does not develop COVID-19 symptoms and tests negative for COVID-19 six days after exposure, they can return to school and activities starting eight days after they were exposed.
Parents push ahead
Grieme said that while they are concerned about COVID-19, the impact the pandemic has had on students’ mental health has also been detrimental. Similar concerns have been voiced by many parents throughout the school year, with many specifically criticizing prolonged remote learning and COVID-19 mitigation protocols.
“You can’t expect people to live in bubbles forever,” Grieme said, adding that people can wear masks at the prom if that makes them feel more comfortable.
Grieme said that she hopes parents taking matters into their own hands will show kids how they can become part of a solution, and she doesn’t want the spirit of the event to be dampened by negative responses from the community.
“This is a celebration for kids who have had everything taken away from them over the last year,” Grieme said. “Don’t take away from that.”
Among the sponsors of KCHS’s prom are local businesses like River City Books and Everything Bagels as well as individuals like former Kenai City Council member Robert Peterkin, Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce and his outgoing chief of staff, James Baisden.
Pierce said Wednesday that he was unable to comment on his sponsorship of prom events and referred further Clarion inquiries to Baisden.
Baisden and his wife, Rhonda, have been vocal in their support of opening district schools, including leading protest efforts at the end of last year advocating for students to return to in-person learning.
Britny Bradshaw, who is helping to fundraise for Homer-area parents looking to combine prom with other senior celebrations, also cited concerns about students’ mental health as one of the reasons parents wanted to put the event together. She added that cases in the Homer area have been low and that vaccines have become more widely available for people who want them.
“Parents have been begging the school boards regularly to give our kids some sense of normalcy and it has been shut down constantly,” Bradshaw said. “Parents are angry, and tired of the individual schools having no say and all decisions made by an out-of-touch school board.”
As with Kenai’s event, the Homer event has been largely supported by contributions from community members, Bradshaw said.
Bradshaw said Thursday that they have raised more than $6,000 from the community in addition to gifts, gift cards and donations for seniors. More than 30 people have signed up to volunteer on the day of the event.
“We have a generous community wanting to support our youth with donations and volunteers to give our seniors and juniors an unforgettable night that they not only get to look forward to now, but to remember fondly over the years to come just like all of us parents had when we were in high school,” Bradshaw wrote. “It’s important and our juniors and seniors deserve it.”
Community and district clash
The most recent development in the rift over the school district’s COVID-19 policies came last week, when Pierce publicly feuded with KPBSD Superintendent John O’Brien about the district’s COVID-19 mitigation protocols.
Pierce took to Facebook to call for the elimination of masking requirements for students while at school, citing the lack of a statewide disaster declaration and improved access to COVID-19 vaccines.
“I hope that the new Superintendent and I can find some common ground there,” Pierce wrote. “I am hopeful for his leadership on this issue, as this is a genuine concern many parents have.”
In a three-page letter to Pierce, O’Brien pulled out different quotes from an interview Pierce gave with KSRM and from his Facebook post and said Pierce had not reached out to discuss the issue despite them working in the same building. O’Brien said he understands the concerns members of the community have about wearing masks but noted masks are proven to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 and said that KPBSD “will not be the lone ranger school district” to remove masking mandates under his leadership.
“I do not discount the high concern parents, staff, children, and the community have about wearing a face covering,” O’Brien wrote. “However, the highest priority of my administration is the responsibility to educate and keep our students, staff, and the entire KPB community safe during the pandemic.”
James Baisden, who has children in KPBSD high schools, told the Clarion on Thursday that efforts by parents and community members to still make prom happen are reflective of how public trust in O’Brien and in the Board of Education has eroded over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even when COVID numbers got better on the peninsula, Baisden said, the school district did not change its operations.
“There’s always a new bar that we have to cross before we get back to normal … we basically just don’t see it ever ending [and] that’s our frustration.”
KPBSD has modified several of its COVID-19 protocols throughout the school year.
The Board of Education approved changes to its “Smart Start Plan,” which allowed students to resume in-person learning even if their region of the peninsula was considered to be at high risk, with mitigation protocols in place. The district most recently waived masking requirements for students during recess, outdoor physical education classes and outdoor class activities.
Baisden said that while the district has said it has the best interests of the children in mind, its mitigation protocols have meant the loss of experiences and memories that families will not get back.
“We can’t go back and redo what they have done to some of these children, because they’re leaving. This is it. It’s the end. It’s final.”
As the school year comes to a close, both the district and the borough face changes. Baisden announced last month that he will be retiring this summer as Pierce’s chief of staff. O’Brien is also retiring. Clayton Holland will take over as superintendent.
Baisden said that while parents have “high hopes” for what Holland can bring to the district, he’s coming into a “difficult situation.”
“The way the board is handling the parents right now is going to have consequences come August on what takes place,” Baisden said. “I think they could make it on Mr. Clayton when he comes in … the parents will end up holding Mr. Clayton accountable.”
“It’s probably not going to end here. This is not going to go away in a few months, so how do we get back to normal?” Baisden said. “The school district, at least in my opinion, is hurting themselves.
“More parents are going to remove children from the school district and they’re going to suffer from that because right now, a lot of parents don’t think that the leadership of the school district has the best interests of their children [in mind].”
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at firstname.lastname@example.org.