It’s Spirit Week at Kenai Central High School. Which is fitting, since students are particularly excited to be back in class this year.
“I think everybody is so glad to be back here,” said high school junior Katie Stockton. “So many people don’t like the remote learning. It just gets hard, it’s a lot more difficult to motivate yourself to do it.”
Stockton and her peers have just completed their first full week back at school in over six months and their third week of school this school year (the first two were remote).
Schools in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District opened their doors back up last Tuesday because of reduced COVID-19 rates across the peninsula. Now, students can engage in the parts of high school that have been impossible to recreate over Zoom, like hallway socializing and after-school activities.
Stockton’s a cheerleader, and her team cheered at the football game last Saturday, their first in months. They’ve been practicing with masks and can sometimes even do stunts, but only when case counts are low, since stunting requires being closer than six feet away.
Other sports teams, as well as the school’s drumline, choir and band, have also been allowed to reconvene. The latter two activities meet in the school’s roomy auditorium, so students can be appropriately spaced as they sing and blow into their instruments.
But most classrooms are not so spacious, making social distancing difficult, said Principal Briana Randle.
“Kenai Central is one of the largest, square-footage wise, one of the largest campuses, but our classes aren’t exactly big,” she said. “So we just made the decision that masks would be required, because even in the halls, from one side to the other, is just at 10 feet.”
Most agree mask compliance has been exemplary. When kids have their masks off for extended periods of time, like at lunch, only three kids are allowed at a table.
Teachers are encouraged to take their kids on “mask breaks” outside, and administrators removed a scheduled break between second and third periods so students wouldn’t mingle in large groups during that time. Those extra minutes were pieced on to the end of other periods, so students and teachers could sanitize their stations after class.
Most of the sanitizing falls on the school’s custodial staff.
“It’s been great to have the students back,” said Brady Young, the high school’s head custodian. “A lot more work on our part as far as the custodial team goes, for disinfecting and trying to keep up with the mandates. But it is wonderful to have the kids back and see the smiles on their face and them interested in being back in class.”
Randle said she thinks seeing the kids after so many months apart was probably the greatest moment in her career as an administrator. On Spirit Day, she sported a brilliantly red Kenai Kardinals sweatshirt, with pigtails sprouting from a cardinal-adorned baseball cap and mask.
Assistant Principal Will Chervenak was in a similar getup. He said students and families seem thrilled to be back.
“We had a survey that went out last summer,” Chervenak said. “Families indicated whether they would like to be 100 percent remote or 100 percent live and we were really close to that 80 percent mark of our families wanting to come back and be live.”
Much of the onus to deliver a highly anticipated, in-person semester is now falling on teachers, who must cater both to their face-to-face students and the 50 or so students who opted for a remote semester.
Amanda Trower is a 10th- and 12th-grade English teacher at the high school.
“The kids have … done OK, but I think those first two weeks online really kind of threw them, because they were used to last year’s online kind of not counting, and this year it does,” Trower said. “So it was an adjustment for everyone.”
“They’re very excited to be back and be with their friends, but I also am able to hold them accountable easily compared to online, where I can just send an email or make a phone call.”
On Monday, Trower was teaching a lesson in the library, a combined study of “Frankenstein” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” She said she’s a little concerned that students are not buying into safety measures enough. Stockton, the junior, said she thinks kids are wearing masks because they’re going through the motions, not because they take the virus seriously.
The optimism about the year’s successful start was palpable, an enthusiasm that was amplified Monday by the ubiquitous red-and-black Spirit Day garb. But the just-as-ubiquitous sanitation stations and posters about masking up served as sobering reminders that the other shoe could drop at any time.
Randle was alert to this tension.
“That’s not to say in the future, it’s not going to touch our school,” Randle said. “I mean, you almost have to assume that it will. It’s not a matter of if, it’s when. And I’d like to think that we’re ready for that.”
But until the central peninsula creeps into the high-risk zone — 52 or more cases over 14 days, per the district’s plan — it’s back to business at KCHS.