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Peninsula schools will reopen this January, regardless of community case rates

Sabine Poux/KDLL

Half the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District will be back in schools five days a week as early as Jan. 19.

It’s something many parents in the district have been pushing for since classes went remote in October. But representatives said teachers and support staff are split on bringing thousands of students back as the virus intensifies locally.

The reopening is part of the district’s revised SmartStart plan, workshopped by 28 committee members and approved by the school board Monday night. Case rates in the borough are expected to get worse by January but the new plan will bring students back regardless — five days a week for pre-k through sixth grade and two days a week for seventh through 12th grade.

Most pre-k and kindergarten students are already meeting in person. The committee recommended that first and second grades return to classrooms five days a week, as well. But Monday night, the board expanded that range to third through six grades, too.

Anne McCabe, president of the Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association, said several staff members came to her after the meeting with concerns. The SmartStart committee, which includes board members, teachers and staff, was not consulted before the amendment was approved by the board.

Teachers and staff are split on the new plan. Dave Brighton, president of the Kenai Peninsula Education Association, said he’s done his own surveying and found that half of association members feel safe returning to school, whereas the other half is concerned with the surge of cases in the community and increasingly dire situation at the hospital.

“Every educator I talk to is anxious to have students back in person," he said. "No one enjoys doing remote instruction. It’s a difficult thing and we miss seeing student faces. That being said, we have a difficult split.”

The district is upgrading some of its safety measures before January. Buildings with central air conditioning systems will be outfitted with units meant to kill airborne viruses.

This November, the district received a good deal of pushback on its remote learning plan, including a protest and petition from parents who say the lack of socializing has impacted their kids’ mental health.

District spokesperson Pegge Erkeneff says the district was already trying to get students and teachers back to school.

“It has kind of in tandem been happening," she said. "I know a lot of people have said that they want everybody back now, and the school board couldn’t do that just yet. We need everybody in our communities to really be doing what they can to slow down the spread.”

The district conducted surveys of parents and students, which the SmartStart committee took into account when drafting the revisions. Out of the 1,276 students surveyed, 62 percent said they would be comfortable with all students returning to buildings during a high risk period. Almost 68 percent of the 2,407 surveyed parents said the same.

Under the new plan, there’s a new, “extreme risk” tier that will trigger school closures. Decisions will be made on a school-by-school basis. A building might close if there is a cluster of cases or if there is an insufficient number of staff to keep the school open. Families can also stick with 100 percent remote learning.

When schools were briefly open for in-person learning this fall, the district ran into staff and substitute staff shortages, as those who were exposed to the virus had to stay home. Erkeneff said they’re expecting shortages again.

“We have been asking anybody that would like to substitute, please apply," she said. "We’ve made it easy for people to get employment as a substitute with us, and the process has been streamlined. The information is on the website.”

The Education Support Association has been meeting with the district to work out a plan so support staff who cannot telework — including custodial staff and classroom aids — do not have to use their personal leave, sick leave and leave without pay for periods of quarantine related to cases inside schools.

Six smaller schools, including Cooper Landing and Hope, are already meeting in person, as are most pre-k, kindergarten and special education students.

Sabine Poux is a producer and reporter for the Brave Little State podcast of Vermont Public. She was formerly news director and evening news host at KDLL in Kenai.

Originally from New York, Sabine has lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont and Kenai.
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