Two weeks in, COVID is surging in peninsula schools

Aug 31, 2021

Credit Sabine Poux/KDLL

UPDATE, 6 p.m. Tuesday:

Starting Wednesday, Seward Middle School, Seward High School and Moose Pass School will join Seward Elementary in requiring masking for all students and staff, at least until Sept. 10.

The Susan B. English, Port Graham and Tebughna schools are all also requiring face coverings at this time. There is no district-wide mask mandate in place.

Original story:  

In the week since the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District started tracking COVID-19 cases, 130 students and staff tested positive for COVID-19 while 930 others have been identified as “close contacts” of cases.

“We are seeing, compared to last year, far more positive cases and people needing to quarantine," said district spokesperson Pegge Erkeneff. "It’s completely different this school year than it was last year. And that’s because Delta [variant] is completely different.”

The district is reintroducing some of the mitigation measures it abandoned this summer, Erkeneff said, like seating charts in classrooms and on school buses, staggered lunch periods and a stricter emphasis on keeping students in pods.

But it’s still not adopting a universal mask mandate for district schools. Universal masking has been controversial among parents and borough officials, despite guidance from the CDC that students and staff wear masks inside classrooms as the contagious Delta variant spreads. In the district’s mitigation plan, masking is a suggestion, not a rule.

However, a handful of district schools do have mask mandates in place. 

The district is deferring to tribal authorities that have mask mandates, Erkeneff said. As of Monday, that includes the Tebughna, Susan B. English and Port Graham schools.

The Nanwalek School is currently 100 percent remote due to a hunker-down policy in the village.

Seward Elementary School also just introduced a universal masking policy for at least two weeks. Erkeneff said that’s because there have been a number of positive cases and close contacts at that school.

“And so, in consultation with the principal and superintendent, the decision was made to move to universal masking at that school to help slow the spread, and then keep any further students who were exposed to somebody who’s positive, they don’t have to quarantine if everybody’s wearing face coverings," Erkeneff said

Per district policy, students exposed to COVID-19 do not have to quarantine when all students linked to an exposure were wearing masks.

Contacts who are vaccinated and asymptomatic also don’t have to isolate or quarantine. In most other cases, students are required to take classes remotely until they’re allowed back in the classroom. 

Erkeneff said Seward Elementary’s policy is specific to that school and that the district is not adopting a universal masking policy at this time. She said it’s too soon to tell whether universal masking is stopping the spread of COVID-19 there, since the policy was new as of Monday. 

But, she said, the district is encouraging more masking amid high levels of community spread.

“You will be starting to hear a stronger ask from the school district and from our different trusted school leaders to please, please, please consider wearing a face covering," Erkeneff said. "It’s not going to be forever. But we need to really protect ourselves and protect each other as COVID is just rapidly spreading in our communities.”

Erkeneff said Superintendent Clayton Holland is meeting with district leadership daily to talk about COVID-19 numbers. The new medical advisory board, which will advise the district on it’s mitigation policy, meets for the second time Wednesday.