Middle, high schoolers return to in-person learning full time

Elementary school students were already attending 5 days a week

In the latest round of adaptation and changing plans on the part of local schools, middle and high school students returned to in-person learning full time earlier this week, leaving their alternating schedule behind.

All students in Kenai Peninsula Borough School District schools were able to go back to school full time, five days a week, starting Monday. Before that, all students in kindergarten through sixth grade could attend five days a week, while middle and high school students were on an alternating A-B schedule, with the exception of students identified as being at higher risk without face-to-face education. Those students were permitted to go back to school full time earlier.

Monday’s change affected Homer High School and Homer Middle School, which had been operating with only half their students in the building at any given time, and had to prepare to welcome them all back starting this week. Homer Flex School was also technically affected, though Principal Chris Brown said in an email that nothing really changed, since Flex students had the option to choose full time in-person education in December. The school had worked with students and families to identify which students would most benefit from in-person learning, and which could carry on remotely.

Given the recent decrease in COVID-19 case numbers on the southern peninsula, though, Brown did say the school has seen an increase in the number of students opting to come back to in-person education. The southern, central and eastern regions of the school district all recently dropped back down into the medium-risk category, which is based on the number of new cases over a two-week period.

At Homer Middle School, Principal Kari Dendurent said the transition to having more students back on Monday went well.

“It was smooth,” she said. “It was great.”

The middle school is keeping the student cohorts it set up under the alternating A-B schedule, Dendurent said. They were created according to the school’s different math classes, so that students in each cohort travel with each other to and from every class.

With more students in the building, it can be harder to maintain the social distancing requirements, but Dendurent said the school is trying to maintain that distancing in several ways. One of them is the class-sized pods. The way the school has altered lunch times and the way students move through the building, the seventh and eighth graders rarely cross paths with each other, she said.

“We’re still trying to maintain that space as much as possible,” Dendurent said.

For the seventh grade, it worked out to be able to have one cohort of remote students who attend classes at the same time, so that no teacher has to teach in-person and remote students at the same time. That didn’t work out for the eighth grade, however, so there are some remote students mixed into classes with in-person students for that grade.

Dendurent said that as of next week when a few students come back from vacation, Homer Middle will have five eighth graders still opting for remote learning, and 14 remote seventh graders.

“We have had some families that have decided to come back, and we’ve got some people that are new to the area,” she said.

Dendurent stressed that the school is willing to work with families to accommodate whatever their needs are, whether in person or remote.

Before Monday, Homer High School’s A-B schedule involved half the students in the building for one full week, followed by the second half of the student population the following full week. Now with the majority of students back in the building full time, Principal Doug Waclawski said the students are excited and teachers are happy to have them back.

Waclawski also said maintaining social distance is more difficult with a full school. It’s just not possible to keep 6 feet of distance between students in some of the high school’s classrooms, he said.

“We knew that would happen,” he said.

Waclawski said students and parents needed to understand the risks before choosing the full-time in-person education option — that if a case turned up in a group that couldn’t be appropriately separated because of space constraints, that a larger number of students might have to stay home and quarantine.

Waclawski said the staff are trying to maintain 6 feet of separation wherever it’s possible. Students are still required to wear face coverings at all times, except when they are eating lunch, at which point they must be 6 feet apart. The school is still conducting its enhanced cleaning practices.

Some teachers remain a little leery and worry about contracting COVID-19, Waclawski said, but they’re pretty much all happy to have the students back. The school nurse provides updated information about the virus to the staff.

Homer High has a total population of about 340, Waclawski said, which fluctuates. Of that, about 60 students have opted to continue with 100% remote education. Out of the remaining 280 students, Waclawski said the school never actually has that many inside the building at any given time.

Waclawski said school sports have been going well since they started back up recently as well. Homer athletes have been good about adhering to the school district policy of wearing face coverings, and parents have been helping when it comes to adhering to the school’s mitigation plans for each sporting event. Waclawski said he’s hopeful the school will be able to relax some of those restrictions and open games up to more spectators soon.

For the most recent information and mitigation plans for schools and school activities, visit the school district website at kpbsd.k12.ak.us.

Reach Megan Pacer at mpacer@homernews.com.