With pods and smaller classes, Cook Inlet Academy keeps doors open

Oct 19, 2020

Cook Inlet Academy on Kalifornsky Beach Road has stayed open for just over two months. So far, they have no reported COVID-19 cases among students or staff.
Credit Sabine Poux/KDLL

 High COVID-19 case rates have shuttered most central and eastern peninsula classrooms, sending kids from over 20 school buildings back home for remote learning. And now that case rates in Homer and the surrounding communities have entered the “high risk” zone, southern peninsula schools don’t appear to be far behind.

But not all local schools are closed to in-person classes. Cook Inlet Academy, a Christain school in Soldotna, has been open since mid-August. The 110 students enrolled this year are divided into classes and pods so if staff or students are directly exposed, the students in that group will be sent home. There is a symptom-free protocol in place and administrators perform daily temperature checks on students. Masks are optional for students and staff.

So far, there haven’t been any cases reported from within the school. Just one case of tangential exposure, said administrator Ginni Hagedorn.

“Last week we had a secondary exposure, meaning a parent of a secondary student tested positive, so those kids of course are out and we emailed every secondary parent individually and said, ‘Your child did or did not have a class with the child whose parent was exposed, your child did or did not sit in a pod with that child,’” Hagedorn said.

Other Alaska private schools have similarly remained in-person even as their public counterparts have closed. Anchorage Waldorf School, which has 82 students, has stayed open, with reduced class sizes for social distancing. Lumen Christi High School, a small Catholic school in Anchorage, closed temporarily to in-person classes last week but reopened today.

Cook Inlet Academy, unlike the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, is basing its in-person decisions off internal case numbers, rather than community transmission rates. Hagedorn said they’ll send kids home if enough teachers or students within a pod test positive such that staying open no longer makes sense.

For now, they’re following several of the CDC’s guidelines. Hagedorn takes students’ temperatures in the morning when they’re dropped off and sends them out to their parents’ cars in the afternoon, so that parents aren’t entering the building. The sections of the building devoted to primary and secondary students are divided, so there’s no crossover between those age groups.

Hagedorn said the decision to make masks optional involved lengthy discussions this summer.

“Can I tell you that we had so many hours of meetings in July,” she said. “I took this job in July and the first thing we did was have just weeks, hours of COVID mitigation talks. And it was a really hard thing to decide masks or no masks.”

Ultimately, they left it up to parents. Some families pulled their kids out of school as a result, Hagedorn said.

Another big shift is classrooms are smaller. The administration capped elementary classes at 15 students, rather than the usual 20 to 22. Even when they were seeing an outpouring of interest from new families, back in August when the school district started the year remote, the school tried to keep things small. 

“The first day that the school district went to red, our phones were ringing off the hook,” she said. “But we interview every family that comes and our big question was, ‘What are you going to do when it goes on green?’ Because we can’t go back and forth.”

“We felt for people calling,” Hagedorn added. “We had people calling literally in tears that they were going to lose their job if their kids can’t be in school. It was a rough couple days. But we got a couple great families that week, and then we just held our line here.”

A table marks the boundary between the primary school and the secondary school, which are housed in the same building. Kids from each part of the school are being kept separate from one another to minimize contact.
Credit Sabine Poux/KDLL

  The small size of classes makes COVID-19 mitigation more manageable than it might be at a larger institution, Hagedorn said. She’s one of three new part-time administrators and there is no school nurse, though she said there were some members of the school’s coronavirus mitigation committee this summer who do have medical backgrounds. They’re using a spreadsheet to see who sits next to who.

“The families in our school are represented in the community in a lot of different capacities and so our risks of exposure are just as high as anybody else’s, I'm sure,” Hagedorn said. “But it’s a lot more manageable with the smaller numbers. Like I said, I had to email every secondary parent the other day. I don’t know how I would do that if I had hundreds of secondary students.”

Aside from some of the bigger shifts, this year feels somewhat normal, Hagedorn said, just with an added cautionary element. They’re figuring out how to handle sports — many of their competitors are in Anchorage or the Mat-Su valley, and all are operating under different parameters — which will inevitably become trickier as sports move indoors.

They’re also dealing with non-COVID illnesses, like a cold that Hagedorn said is going around. 

“We send home kids with symptoms and we let parents make the choice whether they’re going to keep them home for a certain period or if they want to get them tested,” she said. “We don't require testing but then if there’s no negative test, then they stay home a little longer.”

For now, Cook Inlet Academy is taking things one day at a time.