Tuesday is the first day of school in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. For many families and staff, the usual first-day jitters are accompanied by deep concerns about rising coronavirus case numbers on the Kenai Peninsula.
The district is starting the school year with a new COVID-19 mitigation plan. Communications Director Pegge Erkeneff said they’ll handle cases of potential exposure to the virus a little differently than they did last year.
Pegge Erkeneff: Any time we learn there’s a positive case, either because somebody becomes symptomatic and they got a test and call the school, or we're doing screening with our sports teams — and occasionally a positive will come up with some of those screenings with somebody who's not symptomatic — then the next step is our nurses step in and we work with public health and do that contact tracing to identify who might be a close contact.
And then the other thing is — it's a little more complicated this year — it depends if somebody is vaccinated or unvaccinated with what happens next and what their next sets of actions are — if they have to quarantine, or if they can do a test on days 3 to 5 and wear a face covering.
KDLL: What kind of counts as a close contact?
PE: So, there's what's considered a close contact, and a contact of a close contact. A close contact is defined right now as somebody who is six feet or less for 15 minutes or more, but it doesn't have to be in one 15-minute time block. So cumulative in a 24-hour time period, for 15 minutes, and 6 feet or closer.
KDLL: So you mentioned sports. How are sports practices and games going to work under this new plan?
PE: So, we're doing testing, tying into the symptom free school — any symptoms of illness, somebody is asked to stay home or get a test. And it's a rapid test, it's not every day. And we also know if we test on a Monday, then we know everybody hasn’t been around the team over the weekend, that’s good. And that will be true for school as well.
But we're doing those tests, we’re watching for symptoms. And then another thing we're doing within our athletics is we’re kind of keeping our teams of players in pods. So that if there is a close contact, it doesn’t impact an entire team.
And then we've asked all the athletic directors and coaches that if everybody is in a locker room, again, keep those pods, keep the same people together.
KDLL: Got it.
You guys have mentioned before that the district might be able to work with students who have specific kind of heightened concerns about COVID, or who are particularly vulnerable to getting a severe case of COVID. Can you explain how that might work?
PE: Sure. So first off, we want all families to know, all the parents and guardians and students, if they have concerns, they should talk to their principal.
But we’ve put together a new 100% Remote Learning option. And this is a district-wide program. We just sent information out yesterday and there's a website that's going to launch on that on Monday. And everybody has that option if they're between first grade and 12th grade to do that 100 percent district-wide remote option.
But it is going to be different than it was last year. So, this new district-wide 100 Percent Remote Learning option is different from homeschool, where homeschool, the parent is a primary teacher. And it's different from what we did with 100 Percent Remote with the school, the way that we did it in this past year.
So for parents or families that are interested in that, they can contact their local neighborhood school. And then if somebody decided they want to do that for the first quarter, there will be a couple different windows throughout the year that they could then transfer back into the on-site at their neighborhood school.
KDLL: When teachers and staff have to go home because of an exposure, will they have to use their saved up sick leave?
PE: So, last year, in 2020, we had the [Families First Coronavirus Response Act]. And that expired on December 31. So now, if somebody is unvaccinated and has to take sick-leave time because they’ve been identified as a close contact, or if they become ill and have to isolate, or they test positive and they don't even have any symptoms but they have to isolate, that does require the use of sick leave.
We will work individually depending on what type of a position a person has, they can work with their administrator and human resources to see if they could do their job remotely. There’s some jobs that can't be done remotely. But if somebody had to isolate or be in quarantine and their job could be done remotely, we will be working with those on a case-by-case basis.
KDLL: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
PE: So, two updates to the mitigation plan that happened this week was the recommendation for everyone, students and staff, to consider wearing a face covering when they are in school. So that's highly recommended for everybody, whether they are vaccinated or unvaccinated.
All visitors and volunteers must wear face coverings when they are at a school. And anybody who's riding a bus to and from school must wear a face covering on the buses as well.
Erkeneff also wants to remind people to drive a little slower when school starts Tuesday, and to watch for the flashing lights outside school buildings.