School district to require masks

Jul 31, 2020

Credit Elizabeth Earl / KDLL

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District will require cloth face coverings for all staff and most students as the school year starts.

Superintendent John O’Brien announced the policy in a video on Friday morning. He says the policy applies to all staff, all students in third grade and above, and for all parents and volunteers visiting the schools.

"Based on input we’ve received from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services on our Smart Start plan and on feedback we’ve received over time from staff, parents an the community," he said. "A new aspect of our plan, I’ve decided that I will be requiring cloth face coverings for all students in our schools from grades three and up, and also for all staff members. In both instances, cloth face coverings will need to be work when six feet of physical distancing cannot be provided."

The district is also asking parents to fill out a brief survey asking what their plans are at the moment for school in the fall. The district is offering three options: in-person schooling, remote schooling through a neighborhood school, or homeschool through the district’s Connections program. O’Brien says the survey isn’t a hard-and-fast commitment, but just more data to help principals and district administration plan for classes and other school operations.

Students, parents, and teachers have been waiting anxiously for an announcement from the district about how and when schools will reopen for the fall. The district’s startup plan has three tiers of risk based on community cases of the disease: red, which is high risk, yellow, which is intermediate, and green, which is low. Currently, Seward is considered high risk, which means schools would be fully online if cases stay this high, while the central and southern peninsula are intermediate. The small and remote schools, including Seldovia, Port Graham, Nanwalek, Tyonek, and Hope, are evaluated independently. The tiers will be reevaluated every two weeks, though O’Brien said they’re hoping not to ping-pong back and forth between openings and closures that often.

"Our plan is, hopefully, especially if it’s just a daily fluctuation in numbers, to not pingpong from one level to the next," he said. "So that we can provide families and parents with adequate warning if we’re going to be changing levels. Of course, if we have a significant outbreak or situation in a particular school, tht particular school might overnight need to go to a different level. But in terms of day-to-day case counting and our involvement with our medical professionals who are helping us make these decisions, ourplan is to not pingpong on a daily basis back and forth between colors."

Face masks will be required for staff regardless of the risk level, and for students when ever six feet of physical distancing is not possible. In the case of a medical exception, face shields are acceptable. Students from preschool through second grade won’t be required to wear one, but they do need to have one in their school supplies and will be directed where and if they need to wear them, the district said.

Across the country, teachers have been raising the alarm about risks to them and their families if students return in person and do not have to wear face masks. The Mat-Su Valley school district moved to require them for staff and students last week. Kenai Peninsula Education Association President David Brighton praised the decision Friday.

"This summer I’ve received a lot of concerned emails and phone calls from teachers and parents, the majority of which were concerned of the safety aspects of going back to school without face coverings," he said. "I’m glad to see the district is taking the stand on safety above comfort. I know there’s a controversy about the masks and I respect people’s feelings, but I’m happy to see that we’re going to try to make sure that our staff and students are as safe as they can be during the pandemic."

District communications director Pegge Erkeneff says the district plans to launch a map on its website with information about risk levels next week. The first day of school is currently scheduled for August 24. For more information, check out the district’s website under Smart Start 2020.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at eearl@kdll.org.