Baisden among parents demanding full reopening of schools

Dec 15, 2020

Protesters on the corner of the Kenai Spur and Sterling Highway Tuesday afternoon.
Credit Sabine Poux/KDLL

The Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor’s chief of staff is heading an effort to send all students in the school district back to in-person school full time.

James Baisden, who has three kids in the district, is asking Mayor Charlie Pierce and the borough assembly to advocate a full return to classrooms, instead of the district’s current plan. He and other parents are threatening to pull their kids out of remote school if the district does not approve a plan by Jan. 4 to send more kids back to school five days a week.

Pierce said Tuesday he was not aware of Baisden’s request and that he does not plan on bringing forth any laydowns or resolutions for the assembly at this time. He said it’s up to the school district and school board, not the borough.

“I’m hopeful that the board and the administration at the school district will make some reconsiderations but it’s their call and it’s the job of the parents now to convince them otherwise," he said.

The district recently revised its plan to send more kids back to school. Starting Jan. 19, kids between pre-kindergarten and sixth grade will be back in school five days a week, and seventh- through 12th-graders will return on alternating schedules twice a week.

And that’s if coronavirus case rates in the area stay the same or get worse, though the district might switch certain schools or classrooms to remote learning if there are cases within those groups.

But some parents said they’re not happy with that plan. Andie Bock was one of five or so parents protesting on the corner of the Kenai Spur and Sterling highways Tuesday afternoon. Her two kids, who she had taken out of remote classes for the day, were there, too.

“An A/B schedule doesn't work for the older kids. We want them back in full school learning," she said. "If you’re worried about your health and worried about opening schools back up, there was the option when we all went back to school to do distance learning.”

She plans to pull her kids out for the strike. According to district policy, kids who are absent from school may not attend school-sponsored activity practices and competitions on those days. Absences also require written permission from parents.

It’s not the first protest by parents, many of whom have demanded a return to in-person learning online and through testimony at board meetings. Teachers and staff have been split on returning, as coronavirus case counts continue to rise. 

Some were upset last week when the board approved an amendment to change the plan proposed by the SmartStart Committee, a group of board members, teachers and staff that’s been meeting for months to revise the district’s plan. The amendment made it so twice as many kids would go back to in-person school full-time in January than the committee had originally planned.

District Communications Director Pegge Erkeneff noted that if case counts go down to the “intermediate risk” zone — fewer than 10 cases per 100,000 people — the district can open back up again to all students, full time.

“The schools are putting together the plans and we need to do it safely," she said. "But the other piece that’s important is that we are starting to trend downward. And we need, with our community transmission rates, to keep those steady and going down.”

Currently, pre-k, kindergarten and special education students are meeting in person.

The borough, of which Baisden is an employee, is partly responsible for district funding. But both Baisden and Pierce said they do not think it’s a conflict of interest for Baisden to head the effort as a parent with students in the district.

“Every time I advocate, I'm advocating as a father with three students who want the best education for my kids," Baisden said. "That's top of my list. I can't disengage from being the chief of staff, that's what I do everyday.” 

He said he hopes the borough can lend its voice to those of the frustrated parents.