Central peninsula schools closed for in-person education until at least Sept. 8

Superintendent acts due to surge in COVID-19 cases

Schools on the central Kenai Peninsula will not go to on-site learning until Sept. 8 at the earliest, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District announced Tuesday.

The first day of school is Monday. John O’Brien, superintendent, said in a press release he made the decision to shift to remote learning due to a rising number of COVID-19 cases on the central peninsula.

The state announced 14 new resident cases on the central peninsula Monday for 27 cases in the last three days and 63 cases in the last 14 days. The three-day surge puts the central peninsula well above the 52 cases in 14 days that are needed for central peninsula to go to high-risk level.

The southern peninsula and schools in rural communities (like across Kachemak Bay) are at low-risk level and eastern peninsula is at medium-risk level, meaning schools in those areas will be able to open Monday with on-site learning as an option.

Although the central peninsula could go back to the medium-risk level before Sept. 8, O’Brien said in the press release that he decided to close schools until at least Sept. 8 to give the community certainty.

“What we don’t want to do is pingpong back and forth from one day to the next,” Pegge Erkeneff, director of communications, community and government relations for KPBSD, said. “Families, businesses and teachers need to be able to plan.”

Erkeneff said O’Brien made the decision based on the shift to high-risk level, as well as seven-day trends and advice from the district’s COVID-19 Risk Level Medical Advisory Group.

The group is made up of Erkeneff, O’Brien, the two district assistant superintendents, the district’s nursing supervisor, a physician from each of the three peninsula hospitals, and a representative from the borough’s Office of Emergency Management.

According to Erkeneff, all on the advisory group agreed with the decision. Erkeneff said public health nurses are saying the nature of the cases is concerning.

“We have widespread community spread among businesses, workplaces and families right now,” she said. “Everyone needs to limit their bubble and wear masks when they are in big groups, wash their hands, and the best thing is to keep your physical distance.

“Don’t interact with so many people in tight spaces.”

Erkeneff said that interactions with many people in tight spaces not only has the potential to spread the virus, but it also makes the jobs of public health nurses tracing the virus more difficult.

Erkeneff said the hope is taking the proper actions can bring the central peninsula back to medium-risk level by late August or early September. Then O’Brien could give the OK to open up schools after Labor Day weekend.

“Our staff has been planning multiple ways to open school and be there for kids,” Erkeneff said. “Everybody was looking forward to having the kids back in school. There was a lot of disappointment today.”

Erkeneff said a lot of families were still deciding if their children were going to do on-site learning or remote learning, so she couldn’t give an exact number of how many students were planning to do on-site learning.

According to the press release, schools will contact families to give further instructions and respond to questions regarding the shift to 100% remote learning.

Going to a high-risk level also shuts down sports competitions for central peninsula schools. There will be no Kenai-Soldotna football game Friday, Nikiski-Homer football game Saturday or Ted McKenney XC Invitational on Saturday at Tsalteshi Trails.

Chris Perk, athletic director at Homer High School, said in a text message Homer and Seward are likely to compete this weekend against each other in football, volleyball and cross-country. Details will be official once travel and officials can be worked out.

Central peninsula sports teams will go to the high-risk level practice protocol of the Alaska School Activities Association. In this protocol, outdoor practices with 10 feet of distance between participants are preferred. Indoor practices are possible with additional restrictions in place.

When asked if sports competitions could resume before Sept. 8 if the central peninsula goes back to medium-risk level, Erkeneff said the district had not discussed that Tuesday. She said that will be determined later in the week.

Tuesday’s move to high-risk level also closes the pools at Kenai Central and Skyview high schools starting today. The pool at Soldotna High School was already closed.

Erkeneff said Get It and Go Meals will still begin Monday. There will be details released later in the week.

Finally, central peninsula schools will still open Monday for on-site learning for vulnerable students.

“This virus is very contagious,” Erkeneff said. “We all have to do our part. When we close school, it doesn’t only effect school, it affects families and it affects workplaces.

“All the parents that work have to figure out child care and the ripple effect is really big.”

Reach Jeff Helminiak at jhelminiak@homernews.com.