On-site learning could resume in January

K-6 students will be allowed to return to school on Jan. 19 even if their region is at high risk.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education unanimously approved changes to the district’s Smart Start Plan’s high-risk operations during its Monday meeting which will allow students to resume on-site learning in January.

Monday’s meeting lasted for more than seven hours and saw dozens of public comments from parents, teachers and students on both sides of the issue.

Among other things, the approved changes will allow pre-kindergarten through sixth grade students to resume in-person learning full time at district schools beginning Jan. 19, 2021, when the modified plan takes effect, even if the region is in “high risk.” Students in grades seven through 12 will also be brought back for two days a week on an A/B schedule, meaning they will alternate in-person and remote attendance.

The changes come just over a month after a tumultuous Nov. 2 board meeting that saw substantial public comment in opposition to the continued extension of remote learning for schools operating at high-risk level. At that meeting, the board gave direction to KPBSD administration to begin developing revisions to its “Smart Start Plan,” which was first approved in July of this year and provided a framework for how peninsula schools should operate in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is a big step in the right direction with continuing movement towards the goal of getting all kids back at school on-site, full-time,” KPBSD Superintendent John O’Brien said Tuesday. “These are trying and uncertain times but together we will get through this pandemic. I am hopeful that with a vaccination on the way, continued adherence to our mitigation plans, and a conscious effort on the part of our community to practice safe pandemic behaviors, we will get this virus under control.”

Returning to classrooms

Among the approved changes is the introduction of a new “extreme risk” scenario, in which the district can move schools to 100% remote learning until risk levels drop back down to “high.” Currently, schools shift to 100% remote learning if their region of the peninsula moves into high risk. The central, eastern and southern peninsula regions are all currently in high risk. According to the revised plan, moving into extreme-risk level will be based on localized conditions and guidance from state and local medical experts.

Unlike low-, medium- and high-risk levels, the new extreme-risk level does not specify a case rate that would trigger the shift from high to extreme. Schools are at low risk when there is an average daily case incidence of fewer than five COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population over the past 14 days. Schools are at medium risk when that rate is five to 10 cases per 100,000 and high risk when it is 10 cases per 100,000 or more.

Having an extreme-risk level is intended to allow the district to have a more hyperlocal response to a community’s COVID-19 status, meaning they may be able to temporarily move a school that is experiencing an isolated COVID-19 outbreak to remote learning while allowing other schools in the same region to stay open.

In determining whether to shift a school in or out of 100% remote learning, the district and its Medical Advisory Team, which includes a mental health professional, analyze 14-day positive case counts and the seven-day positivity trend, consult with medical providers and public health and review their school decision matrix.

During a work session prior to the board’s Monday meeting, some board members expressed concern that the identities of people on the district’s Medical Advisory Team have not been publicly shared. Other members said that keeping team members’ identities confidential would ensure their privacy and protection in light of COVID-19 becoming an increasingly politicized topic. Others said that because the team is helping to shape KPBSD’s public policy, their identities should at least be shared with the school board.

Over the past few months, the district has circulated surveys among students, staff and parents as a way to solicit input on how they think students could most safely be brought back for on-site learning. Of the 1,272 KPBSD students in grades seven to 12 who responded to the survey, 62.38% said they would be comfortable bringing all students back into school buildings during high-risk operation levels. Similarly, 67.64% of KPBSD parents who were given a similar survey also said they would be comfortable bringing all students back into school buildings during high-risk operation levels.

In contrast, 51.9% of the 815 KPBSD teachers who were asked the same question said they would not be comfortable bringing all students back into school buildings during high-risk levels.

More than 50% of parents, students and teachers who responded to their respective surveys said they would be comfortable with students being brought back into school during high-risk levels on an A/B schedule, meaning only half of the students would attend each day.

The plan approved by the board on Monday will neither bring back all students at once, nor implement an entirely A/B schedule. Instead, all pre-K through sixth grade students will attend school for on-site learning five days a week. Students in grades seven to 12 will be brought back on an A/B schedule, during which they will attend school in-person two days each week. The revisions as initially presented to the board would have limited the grade range from pre-K to second grade, however, Board of Education member Mike Illg offered an amendment, which was adopted, to expand the range from pre-K to sixth grade.

Illg, along with board members Debbie Cary, Zen Kelly, Greg Madden, Matt Morse, Jason Tauriainen and Patti Truesdell voted in favor of including the older students. Members Penny Vadla and Virginia Morgan voted in opposition.

Vadla said one of the reasons she voted against the amendment was because the original range was set specifically because of the type of learning that occurs before third grade, such as learning how to read.

An amendment to make a similar extension to 12th grade was also offered but failed by a vote of 5-4.

Community response

On Nov. 24, there were 1,844 KPBSD students who were enrolled in the district’s Connections Homeschool program. This is compared to 1,801 students on Oct. 21 and 1,772 on Sept. 24. The Nov. 2 board meeting saw parents, teachers, students and other community members voice their opposition to prolonged remote learning and the Dec. 7 meeting was no different.

Proponents of reopening schools to on-site learning cited logistical difficulties with remote instruction, the negative impacts of isolation on students’ mental health and unequal educational experiences. Opponents of reopening schools said that they wouldn’t feel safe in light of surging community case counts, cited comprehension difficulty while wearing masks to teach and expressed their fears of spreading COVID to their peers.

Madeleine Morimoto, who teaches kindergarten at Kaleidoscope School of Arts and Science in Kenai, spoke to the unique challenges kindergarten teachers are experiencing with in-person learning and urged the district to shift to remote learning for kindergarten in light of high COVID-19 case numbers. Specifically, Morimoto said that requiring kindergarten students to wear masks while in school is “developmentally inappropriate” and said that her students cannot understand her when she is wearing a face mask and shield.

“Teaching letter sounds, rhyming words and other skills necessary for kindergarten is impossible with this on,” Morimoto said. “My students cannot see my mouth; they can’t understand what I’m saying and they are not learning.”

Pre-K, kindergarten and special education/intensive needs students have alternated between in-person and remote learning this school year. When schools were operating at high-risk level, those students were allowed to attend on-site learning. However, following Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s Nov. 12 statewide alert, all students shifted to 100% remote learning. Pre-K, kindergarten and special education/intensive needs students were allowed to resume on-site learning on Dec. 2.

Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member Jesse Bjorkman, who also teaches at Nikiski Middle/High School and has been a vocal proponent of resuming on-site learning, said that while he has been advocating for the reopening of schools to students for months, he wants it to happen immediately instead of in the middle of January. Bjorkman demonstrated how to tie a bowline knot during his testimony, which he said illustrated how difficult it has been for him to conduct hands-on instruction remotely.

“Doing that’s really hard online, along with every other thing that we try to do through distance ed online with kids,” Bjorkman said. “There’s a lot of stuff that technology is great for but everyday online learning? It’s not.”

Kristina Goolsby, who said she is a parent of two children, said she has found the lack of structure with remote learning to be especially challenging for working parents, who use their off time to help their kids with their work.

“After five o’clock in the afternoon until nine o’clock in the evening every single day of the week I [have] to spend teaching math, doing reading, prompting because the structure unfortunately wasn’t there and the children were unsupervised,” Goolsby said.

Rebecca Strong, who said she has two students in KPBSD schools, was one of many who spoke to unequal educational and recreational opportunities students are receiving during 100% remote learning.

“There’s going to be students who come back when this is over who had opportunities through private education, private tutors, private sport leagues to maintain their status or maintain their progress or develop, and then there will be a bunch of students who didn’t have those opportunities,” Strong said.

Clara Stading, a student at Homer Flex High School, said while she wants to go back to school, she doesn’t think it is the best decision for the majority of the population.

“I know many people who are immunocompromised and the idea that me going to school could spread COVID to them and get them killed is honestly enough to dissuade me from going to school,” Stading said. “No, it’s not perfect, but is there anything in life that is?”

Many who spoke in favor of reopening schools cited a recent quote from Dr. Anthony Fauci during an episode of ABC’s “This Week,” which aired on Nov. 29, in which he said to “close the bars and keep the schools open.”

Because most COVID spread is happening in other community spaces, Fauci said that people’s default position should be to try to keep children in school or to get them back to school, though he realizes that one size doesn’t always fit all.

“The best way to ensure the safety of the children in school is to get the community level of spread low,” Fauci said in the interview. “So, if you mitigate the things that you know are causing spread in a very, very profound way, in a robust way, if you bring that down, you will then indirectly and ultimately protect the children in the school because the community level is determined how things go across the board.”

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.