Superintendent greenlights Jan. 11 back to school

Jan 5, 2021

Some parents have put pressure on the district to reopen all schools to all students full time. But the district maintains it will use medical guidance and case numbers to make its decisions.
Credit Sabine Poux/KDLL

Winter vacation is over for Kenai Peninsula students, who returned to their virtual classrooms Monday. But in just a week, they’ll be back in their real classrooms, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District announced this afternoon.

The district was originally planning to reopen schools Jan. 19, following guidance from an advisory committee that included teachers, staff and medical experts. 

Now that return will happen Jan. 11. The district said the shift is because of a reduction in COVID-19 transmission on the peninsula. 

There’s been a lot of pressure from parents to reopen. Some threatened to strike if the district did not come up with a plan to return all students to classrooms full time. More than 500 Facebook users have been sharing grievances about remote learning — and, lately, misinformation about mask-wearing — since earlier December.

Communications Director Pegge Erkeneff said the district has been listening to parents but that’s not why it shifted the reopening.

“We’ve said all along we’d be looking at what’s happening with community spread, with medical capacity and with what’s happening in the communities," she said.

All regions of the peninsula are well within what the district considers the “high risk” zone. But in early December, the school board greenlit a new plan to start classes, regardless on Jan. 19. It also also gave Superintendent John O’Brien licence to bring students back earlier if he thought the numbers merited it.

The Kenai Peninsula is still seeing several new reported coronavirus cases each day, including 17 over the weekend and 10 yesterday. Some experts anticipate case counts will rise in the weeks after the holidays, since many people disregarded recommendations to stay home and avoid large gatherings.

"We do still have concerns," said Erkeneff. "We aren’t really seeing what’s happened over New Years and Christmas and winter break and all the holidays that happened. So we could see a rise in cases but we’re moving forward with this plan and it’s got some safety measures.”

Not all students will return to classrooms at once. Pre-k, kindergarten and special needs students have already been taking classes in person. They’ll be joined by second- through sixth-graders five days a week.

Seventh- through 12th-graders will return on alternating schedules twice a week. All students will be allowed to return to school every day when case rates enter the “medium risk” zone — when there are fewer than 10 cases per 100,000 residents in a region.

The district could close schools on an individual basis if there are outbreaks of the virus.

Some schools, including four in Seward and Moose Pass, have been remote since early October. Most other schools in the district closed later that month, with the exception of schools in isolated communities, like Cooper Landing and Nanwalek. 

Dave Brighton, president of the Kenai Peninsula Education Association, said the announcement doesn’t come as a surprise to teachers. O’Brien has been alluding to the possibility of reopening early since before the break.

Brighton and Anne McCabe, president of the Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association, have said teachers and support staff are split on the decision to return to in-person classes.

The SmartStart committee, which includes teachers, staff and board members, had originally recommended that the district only bring students up to second grade back to classrooms five days a week, keeping all older grades on alternating schedules.

But the school board amended that plan at its last meeting to bring more grades back full time. That worried some staff on the committee, who were not consulted before the amendment was approved by the board, McCabe said.

A bright spot for many teachers is that they’ll soon be eligible to get the coronavirus vaccine. 

A federal advisory committee originally recommended that teachers and support staff be part of the next group to get the vaccine. Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration decided instead to distribute vaccines to adults 65 years and older first.