Homer High School. (Homer News file photo)

‘Back to school, ring the bell’

The 2021-22 school year begins Aug. 17 for all KPBSD schools.

Summer is coming to an end, and for students in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, that means getting ready for classes to return next Tuesday, Aug. 17.

While most of Alaska remains in the high-alert category for COVID-19 cases, KPBSD Director of Communications, Community and Government Relations Pegge Erkeneff says the school district is opening completely and wants parents and students to return to in-person learning. Online learning and homeschooling are still available options for students as well.

“This year, we are primarily encouraging everyone to come to school onsite at their school, … but we recognize that there might be some families that really want to do 100% remote for a variety of reasons,” Erkeneff said.

If families decide to conduct their student’s education remotely, they will still need to register through their school, she said. Registration remains open for parents and guardians enrolling their children in school.

Schools on the southern Kenai Peninsula include Homer High School, Homer Flex, Homer Middle School, Paul Banks Elementary, West Homer Elementary, Fireweed Academy, Ninilchik School, Chapman School in Anchor Point, Nikolaevsk School, McNeil Canyon Elementary, Razdolna School, Voznesenka School, Susan B. English School in Seldovia, Nanwalek School and Port Graham School.

In a letter to Homer News, KPBSD Superintendent Clayton Holland wrote the district is dedicated to meeting the needs of students across the peninsula to provide a high-quality education in safe environments.

“The COVID-19 mitigation plan to ensure safety for everyone, and to keep each school open for onsite learning is updated for this year,” wrote Holland. “We are committed to work closely with state and local leaders to develop a long-term fiscal plan that makes sure our children are the highest priority.”

According to Erkeneff, KPBSD recognizes parents’ concerns that have been brought to the district, and is working to ensure students and staff remain safe through physical distancing, good hygiene and testing while meeting in person. All KPBSD schools are also requiring symptom-free protocols, which relies on at-home screening to make sure each day that students do not have any symptoms of COVID-19 before coming to school.

“We’re excited to open the doors for everybody. We’ve got layered mitigation at our schools in place to keep everyone safe,” Erkeneff said. “We’ve got cohorts and pods six feet apart whenever physically possible. Face coverings are highly recommended but are still optional. In the event of a positive case, we will do contact tracing. We have the ability for all of our athletes and co-curricular participants to do antigen testing, so we will have a (testing) device that, with parental permission, if someone isn’t feeling well, we can do a test.”

The district school’s COVID-19 testing capacity will be expanded at all locations following the district’s receipt of a $1.3 million grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for increased testing capabilities. The grant was announced at the Aug. 2 KPBSD Board of Education meeting.

“We want this to be a really safe, healthy, productive year for all of our students and our families,” Erkeneff said. “We are not back to normal yet, but we really want to work with our families. If there are any questions, please talk to your school secretary, school principal, and we look forward to welcoming everyone to school next Tuesday.”

Final enrollment numbers will not be available for a few more weeks, but Erkeneff said several district schools, including McNeil Canyon Elementary, are already enrolling more students than expected.

“Students are coming back. A lot of students last year went remote, or we didn’t know where they were, but a lot of students are coming back, which is awesome,” she said.

At McNeil Canyon, Principal Pete Swanson shared how excited the school is to see students return to school next week.

“Our plan is to get back to the business of school and learning,” Swanson said. “We’re ready for (students). As always, what drives us as educators is the ability to work with students and their families so they can learn.”

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise on the Kenai Peninsula, Erkeneff said the district will continue to communicate with parents and adjust as needed to the ongoing pandemic.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen, but we’ve learned to be responsive, and we’ve done that well through this past year. We will continue to do that well,” she said.

Federal Funding

Since the pandemic began in March 2020, the school district has received two rounds of federal COVID-19 relief funding from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER, fund, including roughly $2.3 million in original ESSER funds under the federal CARES Act and just over $9 million in ESSER II funds through the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations, or CRRSA, Act. A third grant is expected to be received by the district from the American Rescue Plan Act; however, the funding total is unknown at this time.

As shown in a presentation at the fiscal year 2022 board budget meeting on May 3, 2021, the funding has been used for COVID-19 mitigation measures, including providing personal protection equipment, installing electrostatic sprayers and disinfectant tabs; purchasing technology to assist students and teachers, such as student Chromebooks, MiFi hotspots and data plans, and Zoom licensing; as well as maintaining staffing and hiring teachers, counselors and liaisons.

If KPBSD receives the third grant through the ARPA, a portion of the funding will be reserved to address learning loss through comprehensive programs such as summer learning and enrichment.

The presentation can be viewed at www.kpbsd.k12.ak.us/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=42818.

COVID-19 mitigation protocols

The KPBSD COVID-19 mitigation plan can be found at www.kpbsd.k12.ak.us/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=42913. To see current COVID-19 numbers and alert statuses, visit KPBSD’s COVID-19 dashboard at covid19.kpbsd.org/dashboard.

Face masks will not be required in the classroom, but the school district is strongly advising the usage of them for both vaccinated and unvaccinated students, faculty and staff, according to the COVID-19 mitigation plan. All visitors and volunteers will be required to wear face masks indoors. Per Department of Transportation rules, anyone riding the bus must wear a face mask, except for the bus driver due to safety concerns.

Proper hygiene, including handwashing and respiratory etiquette, and physical distancing signage has been placed in each school to encourage all students and staff to maintain healthy conditions in each area of the schools.

Bipolar ionization systems have been installed in all KPBSD facilities, and the custodial staff uses HOCL and electrostatic sprayers to clean the buildings effectively.

Contact tracing will be conducted by the KPBSD health services coordinator, who is also responsible for monitoring daily COVID-19 rates and remaining up to date with current local and state developments. Contact tracing will work with the state, local, territorial or Tribal health departments to identify anyone who has been exposed.

Each school has COVID-19 diagnostic and screening capabilities, and will provide antigen testing for students and co-curricular participants. If positive, a molecular test will be conducted to verify the result. Athletes will conduct daily symptom checks with their coaches as well as antigen tests depending on where the teams travel.

The district will continue to encourage vaccination for those eligible, and has previously partnered with South Peninsula Hospital to host a vaccination clinic at Homer High. Children ages 12 and older are eligible to receive the Pfizer vaccine. All children between the ages of 12 and 17 must have parental consent to receive the vaccine, according to South Peninsula Hospital Director of Public Relations and Marketing Derotha Ferraro.

Students with disabilities or are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 because of illness will be accommodated, including remote instruction with connectivity and devices from the district.

Food services

KPBSD is offering free meals to students who attend schools participating in the National School Lunch Breakfast program, according to a recent news release from the school district. Currently, all schools in Homer, expect for Razdolna School and Voznesenka School, are participating in the program. While a current Free and Reduced meal application is not necessary for the meal program, it is required for other federal assistance program eligibility.

Current Free and Reduced meal applications for the 2020-21 school year will expire Sept. 28, 2021, so guardians of students who qualify for additional federal assistance programs will need to fill out an application. Applications are accepted online through the State of Alaska portal schoolmealsapplication.education.alaska.gov/. Schools will also have paper applications on hand if needed.

The KPBSD student nutrition is unable to set a predetermined menu at the beginning of the school year, so any students with dietary restrictions should contact their school’s local kitchen to request a menu for the week.

According to the release, Get It and Go Meals will only be available at schools participating in the National School Lunch Breakfast program and will only be offered if the school temporarily closes because of COVID-19. If this were to happen, pickup time would be noon to 12:30 each day.

Holiday Schedule

Classes for all district schools will not be held on these holiday and scheduled vacation days:

Sept. 6 – Labor Day

Nov. 11 – Vacation day

Nov. 25-26 – Thanksgiving

Dec. 20-31 – Winter Break

March 7-11 – Spring Break

April 15 – Vacation day

May 18 – End of school year

Volunteers

KPBSD is currently looking for volunteers and substitutes for all types of positions in schools across the peninsula. All new and returning volunteers must fill out an online background check in order to be allowed in the schools. For more information and to fill out the background check, visit https://www.kpbsd.k12.ak.us/employment.aspx?id=19556. More information concerning substitute hiring will be available by the borough soon.

Other important information

Each school in Homer hosts a parent portal on their website for parents and guardians to find relevant information about each school and upcoming events.

Visit www.kpbsd.k12.ak.us/students_parents.aspx for more quick links to important information, such as online payments, fast facts, curriculum guides, holiday schedules and more.

For more information about the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District or the start of the 2021-22 school year, visit www.kpbsd.k12.ak.us/.

Reach Sarah Knapp at sarah.knapp@homernews.com.

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