The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District took steps to improve safety in school this past week, making provisions for its school nurses and instituting a face covering requirement.
Masks or face coverings will be required in school buildings when they reopen, KPBSD Superintendent John O’Brien announced in a video message last Thursday.
“Cloth face coverings will need to be worn when 6 feet of physical distancing cannot be provided,” O’Brien said in his video announcement.
The school district finalized their reopening plans at the July 13 board of education meeting. That plan encouraged face coverings and masks to be worn by staff and students, but on Thursday, O’Brien announced masks are now mandatory for all staff and students in third grade and higher.
O’Brien said he made the decision based on feedback he received from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services and from staff and parents regarding the district’s Smart Start Plan, the district’s reopening plan.
The mask requirement will be mandated in all schools across the district, O’Brien said in the video. When visitors and parents enter school buildings, they will also be required to wear a cloth face covering.
Later in his video announcement, O’Brien asked parents to give the district a preliminary idea on how their families will choose to learn this fall. The district is offering students three choices: to attend school in person, to do remote learning through the neighborhood school or to do remote learning through the district’s home-school program, Connections.
O’Brien said families should give an indication about what decision they might make when school starts in August.
“It would be very helpful for principals to have a preliminary idea so that they can plan class lists and which staff at their school are going to be teaching in person and which ones at their school are going to be teaching remotely,” O’Brien said in his video announcement.
As the beginning of school nears, the district will be sending out enrollment forms asking for finalized decisions from families.
O’Brien said he was encouraged by COVID-19 case count numbers for areas around the peninsula, and said he’s hopeful as dipnetting and tourism seasons end that case numbers will continue to drop.
Heading into the new year, school nurses will see a $5-per-hour increase in their pay after the KPBSD Board of Education approved an agreement seeking to address vacancies in school nursing at their Monday meeting.
In a unanimous vote, the school board agreed to let the district enter into an agreement with the Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association, and increase school nurse pay by $5 per hour using federal COVID-19 relief funds. The increase in pay is set to expire at the end of 2020-2021 school year.
“We all agree that during this global pandemic that it is essential that we do all we can to ensure that all of our nursing positions are filled and that we can recruit and retain quality nurses here on the Kenai Peninsula,” O’Brien said at the Monday school board meeting.
The district is experiencing nursing vacancies due to public health offices and local medical practices offering “significantly more per hour” than the district’s salary schedule for licensed nurses, documents in the school board agenda said.
‘We can’t afford to lose any more (nurses) through resignations and it was really hard to fill these positions in the first place because our pay rate for our nurses is significantly lower for the going rate for their work in and around the community,” Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association President Anne McCabe said.
McCabe said board members should be setting an example for district employees and students by having school board meetings in person, “to show us that you’re leading the way, that you’re taking the leadership role of saying ‘we believe it’s safe, therefore we too will gather.”
At Monday’s meeting, the school board voted to move future meetings to the Kenai Central High School auditorium.
Victoria Petersen is a freelance writer living in Anchorage and a former Peninsula Clarion reporter.
• By Victoria Petersen, For the Peninsula Clarion