District finalizes school restart plan, sets first day of school

The school district finalized their mitigation plan and set classes to begin Aug. 24, four days later than originally scheduled, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education decided at their Monday meeting.

In a unanimous vote, the school board approved the COVID-19 Smart Start plan, a mitigation plan proposed by a stakeholders committee, which gives parents the option to keep their children home this fall or send them to physical classrooms.

The school board also voted to begin school Aug. 24. The idea to push back the first day of school is to allow teachers and staff more time to prepare their classroom.

Deciding how to return to school is going to be a difficult problem to surmount, David Brighton, president of Kenai Peninsula Education Association, said at Monday’s meeting.

“We are anxious,” Brighton, who served on the committee that drafted the Smart Start plan, said. “I think there are still many questions out there and we need to communicate this as best as we can.”

Brighton said one of the issues is that “nobody knows where we’ll be in August.”

When school is able to return to in-person instruction, Brighton said he believes the district is going to see COVID-19 reach students, staff and teachers.

“I feel like we don’t have a fantastic answer on what will happen … if they get sick,” Brighton said.

A handful of parents and staff called in to Monday’s school board meeting to ask questions, many of them related to concerns about whether or not students and staff will be mandated to wear masks inside schools.

The Smart Start plan addresses various levels of risk, Superintendent John O’Brien said at the meeting, however, “protocols, logistics and minute details” are still being determined by district administration. O’Brien said the district will change the plan as the science and recommendations around COVID-19 change. The plan itself is not intended to be an all-inclusive operation schedule, he added.

The plan allows families to decide where they want to learn in the upcoming school year. Students can opt out of in-person instruction for remote learning, or choose to learn in their physical classrooms. Teachers who have students both at home and at school will not be asked to teach Zoom courses when teaching in person, Brighton said.

Brighton said he would personally like to see people wearing face coverings, and requiring face masks in classrooms may not be off the table. At Monday’s meeting, O’Brien said Gov. Mike Dunleavy has talked about the importance of face coverings in slowing the spread of the new coronavirus, and said “it’s possible at some point” the governor could mandate face coverings, and that “could translate to the classroom.”

Brighton said the district can work with students when they fall behind in their education, however, “if they’re sick … there are many people facing permanent damage to their respiratory system and there are deaths.”

“We don’t want to see that on the Kenai Peninsula,” he said.

One of the biggest questions that Brighton has is about what happens when teachers get sick.

Anne McCabe, president of the Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association, also spoke at Monday’s meeting, saying she also had questions about sick leave for part-time employees.

McCabe said she made a survey for the association members asking them about the Smart Start Plan and how they felt about going back to school. She said many employees responded to the survey, from those asking for no masks in school to those who believe schools should be closed. Two-thirds of her survey respondents said they were “very, very concerned about going back to school,” she said.

“We have a lot of anxiety out there with our employees,” McCabe said.

The next school board meeting is Aug. 3.

Read the plan at: https://go.boarddocs.com/ak/kpbsd/Board.nsf/files/BRC2LW029A82/$file/KPBSD%202020%20Smart%20Start%20Plan.pdf.

Victoria Petersen is a freelance writer living in Anchorage and a former Peninsula Clarion reporter.