Superintendent undergoing cancer treatment

Mar 24, 2020

KPBSD Superintendent John O'Brien addressing the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce earlier this year.
Credit Jenny Neyman/KDLL

Teachers, administrators and staff in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District are having to do a lot of learning this month to get ready to provide education from afar.

School is back in session Monday but students won’t physically be at school, with the need for social distancing to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Instead, teachers are figuring out how to deliver lessons through internet-based tools or through the mail for families without internet access at home.

As if that weren’t enough of a challenge to tackle, the district announced another big change this week. In a letter posted Monday, district Superintendent John O’Brien announced that he is stepping back from an active role, as he will be undergoing treatment for cancer.

O’Brien said he was diagnosed with kidney cancer the Friday before spring break. He is out of state receiving medical care and diagnostic testing and was slated for surgery Tuesday. He said it was caught early and he has a good prognosis for recovery.

In O’Brien’s absenceAssistant Superintendent Dave Jones is taking his place. District Communications Director Pegge Erkeneff says O’Brien is deeply missed but that he left the leadership team well prepared to meet the challenges ahead.

“The biggest impact is we work closely as a team but we’re down one main person in our whole team,” Erkeneff said. “We’re already short with our leadership team with cuts that we’ve made so adapting to this is a challenge at any time and it’s all hands on deck. I do want to say, though, in talking to John over the last couple weeks, he did keep in close contact until we said, ‘Now it’s time to focus on your family and your health,’ but he has complete confidence in everybody rising to the occasion.”

Ekeneff says the district will be ready Monday to deliver education to students.

“What our district has actually done in the last week and two weeks and what we’re doing for professional development in in-service this week for all of our staff is amazing,” she said. “And to be able to begin providing education for all grades next week, it’s going to be bumpy, but we’re doing it, and John’s really proud of that.”

School breakfast and lunch deliveries continue even though school is not physically in session. There was concern that as positive cases of COVID-19 are confirmed in district communities, that might interrupt food distribution to protect staff and families. Over the weekend, one case was confirmed in Soldotna and one in Sterling, and another case was confirmed in Sterling Monday evening. But Erkeneff says the district has been in contact with the state Department of Health and Social Services and there is no reason to think any of those cases would have created exposure for any schools.

“We’re really protecting that kitchen area where we’re creating the meals and working with every clean protocol that we have for cleaning daily and how we’re handling food and even passing the food to students or families when they come,” Erkeneff said.

The district is serving 1,600 meals a day.