Jeff Helminiak / Peninsula Clarion
                                Soldotna football player Zac Buckbee disinfects a smash ball Wednesday, June 17 at Justin Maile Field in Soldotna.

Jeff Helminiak / Peninsula Clarion Soldotna football player Zac Buckbee disinfects a smash ball Wednesday, June 17 at Justin Maile Field in Soldotna.

Back to school? COVID cases to decide

“We are on a tightwire between a rock and a hard place.”

Will the kids be in school in the fall? Will there be sports?

Dave Jones, assistant superintendent for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, said a big part of the answers to those questions rests with the community.

“The community needs to start realizing their actions will influence whether there are student athletics and school in the fall,” Jones said.

Jones said the community will influence school and sports by how well the community adheres to practices to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, like wearing cloth face coverings, social distancing, hand-washing and limiting large social gatherings.

“I can’t control people’s activities and what they do,” Jones said. “Unfortunately, the results of those activities as far as positive or negative COVID tests are what will determine what we’re able to do.”

High risk would close schools, stop sports

Both the school district and the Alaska School Activities Association have plans to use guidance from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services to determine the three levels of community transmission — high, intermediate and low.

Jones said high community transmission, also called high risk, will have the greatest impact on what schools are able to do.

“I’m supposed to be looking out for the safety of employees and students,” Jones said. “At the same time I’d like to return to school, activities and all the important parts of young people’s lives.

“When incidents of the coronavirus increase like this, it’s not in the best interest of safety to bring the students back.”

According to the district’s Smart Start 2020 plan, at high risk “buildings are closed to students and learning is 100% remote. Possible exception for ‘vulnerable populations’ of students individually or in small groupings.”

According to ASAA’s in-season COVID protocol, sports competitions cease at high risk. Indoor practices also cease, with outdoor conditioning with 10 feet of distance between all participants still possible.

What is high risk?

Health and Social Services guidance uses the case rate per 100,000 people per day over the past 14 days to determine the level of community transmission.

Jones said the school district will most likely give risk levels to three different regions on the Kenai Peninsula. He said a lot of students and staff shuttle between residences and schools in these regions.

South Peninsula is Homer, Fritz Creek, Anchor Point and cases reported as “Other South.” Central Peninsula is Sterling, Soldotna, Kenai, Nikiski and “Other North.” Eastern Peninsula is Seward and Moose Pass.

Jones made a chart using census data and community transmission criteria from Health and Social Services.

According to that chart, Central Peninsula moves to high risk when it gets 52 resident cases over a 14-day period, or an average of 3.7 cases per day. South Peninsula moves to high risk at 20 cases, or 1.4 cases per day. Eastern Peninsula moves to high risk at seven cases, or .5 cases a day.

Jones said the numbers are not absolute because such a small number of cases can impact the risk level.

He gave the example of a group of contained people in a community, like resident seafood workers, testing positive. If all those workers were contained at the seafood processing plant, they would not count toward community spread.

“It’s important that people understand we’re not just looking at a number to say whether we’re closed or open,” Jones said. “There’s a lot of other things that go into it.”

Jones also said a change in status also won’t necessarily mean next-day action. He gave the example of how the South Peninsula was handled when it came out of high risk and was able to resume out-of-season, summer sports activities.

“We’d like to give them warning,” Jones said. “What we did in Homer when they came out of red is we told them it’s looking like you’re coming out of red and going into yellow.

“It depends on the numbers the next few days, but if they go down be ready to go yellow.”

Central Peninsula moves to high risk over the weekend

Headed in the opposite direction is Central Peninsula. According to the ASAA protocol for out-of-season, summer activities, moving to high risk means all in-person activities cease.

Sunday, Central Peninsula coaches were notified by the district that the risk level had gone to high and all in-person activities were to stop.

Through Sunday, Central Peninsula had 57 cases in the last 14 days, above the 52 needed to be high risk. Eastern Peninsula also is at high risk, with 13 cases in the last 14 days, above the seven needed to be high risk.

Homer is at low risk, with eight cases in the last 14 days. Homer would hit intermediate risk if it got to 11 cases, and high risk if it got to 20.

Jones said a lot of coaches put a lot of time into making COVID mitigation plans so they could practice this summer.

“We have a lot of disappointed people, but we’ve also had some people in the community that are becoming more educated on what the numbers mean,” Jones said. “Hopefully, we’ll start seeing people buy into the fact their actions will control if we have sports or school or not.”

A little responsibility can go a long way

Jones gave an example of how actions can affect schools and activities.

“When you do the tracing, at Fourth of July celebrations people chose not to socially distance and wear masks,” Jones said. “It’s a very aggressive disease. It doesn’t miss a chance to spread itself.”

The assistant superintendent also gave the example of Seward, which also is currently high risk. As of June 13, Seward was low risk with just one case reported in the last 14 days.

“Unfortunately, if you look at Eastern Peninsula and follow that story, they went from having one or two cases over the course of a month to having over 30 in like a week,” Jones said. “It was because we decided, and I’m not trying to criticize anybody, a lot of people decided to go into closed buildings and were listening to music.

“People that were singing were not social distancing.”

On the flip side, Homer was high risk in mid-June and has since turned to low risk.

“It would appear to me a lot of people at that end of the borough said, ‘Hey, we’ve got a problem,’” Jones said. “They started social distancing and doing things recommended to stop or slow the coronavirus.”

Jones said athletic directors have scheduled full seasons. For those seasons to happen, communities will have to keep COVID-19 cases down.

“If Homer had a game scheduled against Seward right now, they wouldn’t be able to play it because Seward can’t play,” Jones said. “Homer would still be able to practice.”

Green is the goal

To be in low risk, Central Peninsula can have 26 nonresident cases in 14 days, or 1.8 cases per day. South Peninsula can have 10 cases in 14 days, or .7 per day. Eastern Peninsula can have four in 14 days, or .3 per day.

“For schools, if you look at the Smart Start plan, if we’re at low, we’re as close to normal as we’ll be able to get and we’re where we’d like to be,” Jones said. “If we don’t have people following social distancing and masking, we could be in trouble if numbers continue to rise like they have been.”

The district’s Smart Start plan has 16 pages that lay out the difference between low and medium risk. The plan is available on the district’s website.

The district’s general description of low is: “Buildings are open and learning is conducted with additional protocols for health, safety, and continuity. Parents may select for students to learn remotely.”

At medium, “Building are open with possible social (physical) distancing protocols in place. Parents may select for students to learn remotely.”

For sports, ASAA’s protocol allows competitions and practices to take place at low- and medium-risk levels. Restrictions increase at the medium level and are laid out on ASAA’s website.

‘Tightwire between a rock and a hard place’

Jones said the district is fully aware of how much open schools and activities benefit students. The district also is aware of the dangers of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are on a tightwire between a rock and a hard place,” Jones said. “We’re hoping that net under the wire is a condition of low risk as opposed to a high-risk condition.

“We get there by people maintaining social distance, wearing masks and people behaving responsibly when they’re out and about in communities.”

Football and cross-country running can begin practice July 29 and have a first competition Aug. 13. Swimming and diving, and volleyball, can practice Aug. 5 and compete Aug. 20. The first day of school is Aug. 24.

“I think the important thing is people need to start doing it now,” Jones said of taking action to drive COVID-19 positive tests down. “It takes a little while for what we’re doing now to hit the chart.”

Jones said he is optimistic the community will do right by students.

“I believe when people realize all these things make a difference and their actions will determine if we have activities and if we go back to school on as near a normal basis as possible, I have faith people are going to start doing the right things,” Jones said. “They’ll do the distancing, the washing of hands and the face masks when they can’t get more than 6 feet away from people.”

Then, people can listen to a distinct sound coming from the district office.

“I’ll tell you, when we get a day of zeros on the Kenai, I throw my arms up and celebrate,” Jones said.

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