With the southern Kenai Peninsula resting in the low-risk zone in terms of community spread of COVID-19, area schools are free to open to in-person education on Monday. Parents of Homer High School students recently got a run down of what this school year will look like.
All schools from Ninilchik south are able to open to in-person education this coming Monday. The southern peninsula has had only seven new cases of COVID-19 in the last 14 days, which places the region in the low-risk level in the system used by the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District to determine which mitigation measures schools need to use and when they have to close. At medium risk, more mitigation protocols are used. At high risk, where there is significant community spread of the disease, the district will make a decision about whether to close schools.
The central peninsula is currently at high risk, and all the district has decided to close all schools in that region to in-person learning, and begin with 100% remote learning until early September.
As Principal Doug Waclawski told parents in a virtual meeting last Thursday, students here still have the choice between in-person education, distance learning and homeschool. What’s right for each student may change over time, and so students will be allowed to transition from in-person education to remote, and vice versa after the school year starts.
“Embrace the mess”
This school year will be about acknowledging that things aren’t going to run perfectly, Wackawski told parents. The school has altered its bell schedule, altered how students can walk down the hallways and altered its custodial sanitation throughout the day, but things will still come up that can’t be accounted for.
Waclawski spent some time explaining the three community spread alert levels — green for low, yellow for medium and red for high — and emphasized that what schools will be able to do is tied in to what the community is doing. The fewer community cases of COVID-19, the lower the risk level to the schools. The higher the community spread, the higher the risk level and the more mitigation measures have to be used.
“What happens in the community affects the school, fortunately or unfortunately,” Waclawski said.
Students will be distanced in Homer High School to the greatest extent possible. Extra furniture has been removed from classrooms and Waclawski said classes will utilize larger spaces like the gym, the Homer High School Commons, the library and the auditorium when possible for increased distancing between students.
The school will not be doing daily screenings of students, Waclawski explained. Screenings are mandatory for student athletes participating in a sport.
If a student begins to show symptoms of COVID-19 while at school, they will be sent to the school nurse.
“As parents, we need you to not send them if they’re sick,” Waclawski said.
He highlighted the fact that all classes are going to be accessible to remote students as a reason it shouldn’t be too difficult for a student who feels sick or who tests positive to transition to remote learning within a day or two. Teachers can record their lessons and post them online, students can Zoom into the classes while they’re happening in real time, and they can participate in live classes through other technology like FaceTime, Waclawski said.
The expectation is that students learning from home will participate along with students sitting in the classrooms.
While students must be 6 feet away from each other, Waclawski said he ideally wants teachers to remain at least 10 feet away from their students when they are giving instruction and projecting their voices.
With the new school year comes a host of questions from parents, and those with Homer High students came to the Zoom meeting prepared.
Some were concerned about how teachers would be supported if they needed to take leave, or if they had to get tested and quarantine at home while waiting for results. Waclawski noted that the school has raised the pay rate for substitute teachers to $150 a day for teachers and $130 a day for support staff.
With teachers needing to quarantine after potential exposure from either inside or outside the school building, Waclawski said that the school could need 10-12 substitutes a day at any given time in the building.
Other parents were concerned about the safety protocols in place for all school pools in the district, and whether they would make them too difficult to hold swim meets this year. Waclawski said the Kachemak Swim Club has already started practices according to safety guidelines in the pool, and described a swim meet they recently held by having athletes wait out in their cars before swimming their particular heats.
Another parent question was whether choir would be held this year. It’s been canceled at Homer Middle School out of concern over the difficulty of keeping upward of 70 students property spaced out.
Waclawski said choir will be happening at Homer High this year. Choir students will likely need to be kept 10-14 feet apart, Waclawski said, and “maybe wear face shields” while singing.
“There is going to be band and choir,” he said. “We may have to do something like a modified or a hybrid (class) where we have a limited number of people singing at one time or playing instruments. So obviously the gym and the auditorium are going to be used a lot for those classes if they have them normal sized. Because obviously our choir has 60 people in it.”
Other parents asked about masks — not about wearing them, but as part of the dress code. What kind of masks are appropriate for school, and which aren’t?
Waclawski said face coverings will be treated like any other part of the school’s dress code. They cannot contain swear words, depictions of drug paraphernalia, and must be otherwise appropriate for school.
When it comes to the school district’s policy that face coverings will be worn by all staff this year and all students in grade three and up, Waclawski said it doesn’t matter what his personal opinions about them are.
“If we’re wrong about masks, which could happen because I’ve gotten bad information in the past … I will gladly apologize to everybody, get on KBBI (public radio), write a letter to the editor and apologize,” Waclawski said. “But, if they’re right about masks, people could die. So, to me it’s a no brainer. We have to do masks until it is proven not to work. Again, when we’re dealing with people’s children, it’s just not a question.”
Another parent concern was over whether school administration will step in if a student or staff member is found to be violating safety protocols, such as not wearing masks and social distancing.
Assistant Principal Alison Mall was co-hosting the virtual meeting, and said administration will do the investigation needed to in order to get to the bottom of a situation or complaint.
“My goal is to be open,” Waclawski said. “And anybody who is doing something that could threaten that, we’re going to do something about it, because I would much rather have kids in the building than have them be at home. But we’ve gotta do it right.”
Reach Megan Pacer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: This article had been updated with new information from the school district on the exact risk level for the southern peninsula.