Homer High School. (Homer News file photo)

Homer High School. (Homer News file photo)

Principals discuss what reopening will look like at local schools

Parents in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District have three choices before them for how to educate their children at the start of this school year, and a dwindling number of days to make that decision.

The first day of school is Monday, Aug. 24, and the district will be reopening its buildings for education. In-person education is one of the three choices parents can make. The other two are to enroll their children in remote learning through the district, or to homeschool. Connections is the homeschool program provided by the district, but there are other popular programs that are statewide, such as IDEA.

As of this week, it appears most parents in the district are still leaning toward in-person education, though KPBSD Spokesperson Pegge Erkeneff said in an email that’s it’s too early to look at that trend seriously since many families are only just now talking to their individual schools and have yet to make a decision.

According to the parent responses to the district so far about how they plan to enroll their children, about 72% of parents currently favor in-person education, while about 20% would prefer to enroll their children in remote learning through the district, and about 7.5% are looking at Connections Homeschool.

They district had gotten 2,345 responses for students as of Wednesday morning, Erkeneff said.

The district is requiring masks be worn by all staff and by students in third grade and up.

Homer area principals gave the Homer News a snapshot of what education will look like this fall.

Younger students

Eric Pederson is principal of Paul Banks Elementary School in Homer and was part of the group that helped create the district’s 2020 Smart Start plan. The Alaska Department of Education and Early Development created the Smart Start guidelines as a base for how to reopen schools, and allowed each school district in Alaska to tailor those guidelines to its region.

The district’s plan follows different protocols based on how much the virus is spreading through the district’s various communities. That’s calculated by risk levels depending on the average number of cases in a region over 14 days. At a low risk level, there are certain mitigation measures in place, but schools can open for in-school learning. At a medium risk level, more restrictions have to be followed. When regions of the peninsula rise to a high risk level, meaning there is greater community spread, the district has guidelines for closing the schools back down and moving students to 100% remote education.

At Paul Banks, adapting the district protocols for an elementary school has been nonstop work, Pederson said.

“It’s been ongoing,” he said of the planning. “It’s been constant.”

Pederson said the school is trying to create a situation that is flexible for families and teachers. Staff have had to get creative to find solutions to certain issues, and he said the creativity among the Paul Banks staff has been an asset in that regard. It comes into play with things like the state’s recent change to the travel protocols for those entering Alaska.

One wouldn’t normally think that would have a lot to do with schools opening, but Pederson said he has a teacher who will be returning from out of state, and that the mandate change affects when she’ll be able to start work. Keeping on top of changes and updates like that one are what’s been keeping the school busy.

It hasn’t been easy changing the way things normally work in a school that serves pre-Kindergarten through second graders, Pederson said.

“But I don’t think anybody went into this job for ease of work,” he said.

The school has had to rethink everything, Pederson said, from recess to how bathroom breaks will be handled. Custodian hours can be moved around but might be a challenge, seeing as one of the custodians also performs recess duty — a prime time to get in the classrooms to clean when the students aren’t in them.

Students as young as those who attend Paul Banks won’t be expected to wipe down their own desks or tables, Pederson said, so that will fall mainly to custodians and teachers. Pederson also wouldn’t want to introduce anything with harsh chemicals, like sanitary wipes, to the young students, he said.

Letting students go to the bathroom and moving them through school hallways will also have to be changed to allow for the most amount of distancing possible.

The concept of smaller cohorts of students grouped together within one larger class has been floated at the state level as a way to reduce potential virus spread, especially among younger students. Erkeneff said schools in KPBSD are developing such cohorts.

“This will especially assist if there is a positive COVID-19 exposure in a building, and assist contact tracing to determine who would be a close contact and need to quarantine,” she wrote in an email.

For Pederson, depending on the number of students who actually do return for in-person education, those cohorts could just be the classes themselves. With some students doing remote learning or homeschooling, some classes could be around 12 students, and Pederson said that would serve as the cohort.

The issue of keeping students separated comes back up with things like students who get speech assistance. There’s a speech specialist in the school who serves a couple students from multiple classes, so figuring out how to connect them with her safely is one of the problems the school has to solve, Pederson said.

When it comes to how many parents will enroll their students back into the physical Paul Banks building, Pederson said talking with families has been “kind of chicken and egg.”

“They’re like, ‘what are you going to do?’” he said of the parents. “And I’m like, ‘well, what are you going to do?’”

Some changes the school makes will depend on how many students show up physically, but how many parents send their kids back will depend on what the school is doing.

Parents will have the option to switch their children from remote learning to in-person education, and vice versa, after the school year has already started. Erkeneff said parents will work with their individual schools to accomplish such a switch if they want one.

“This will also be an important option for the in-school learning option if a child needs to quarantine, or is ill with a seasonal cold or flu,” she wrote. “We will work to make certain that the needs for students and families are met.”

Pederson said that while the school will ask parents not to “flip flop” back and forth between those two options too much, he does want things to be flexible so the best choices possible can be made for each student.

“A lot of it is going to be a case-by-case scenario,” he said. “If something is not working and the parent is telling us it’s not working … we’ll honor that request, but it may take some time.”

Pederson said the school will have to make sure a family has the necessary equipment and technology before a student can be switched from in-person to remote, for example. And if it’s the other way around, he’d need about 48 hours notice before being able to add a student into a classroom, to make sure the teacher was prepared and social distancing could be maintained.

Whether students are learning inside the school building or at home remotely, Pederson said there’s a higher expectation of participation this year than there was when schools shifted into emergency distance learning in the spring. There’s educational ground to be made up and schools have a responsibility to make sure students don’t fall behind, he said.

Older students

In addition to Pederson, Homer Middle School Principal Kari Dendurent was also part of the team that helped form the district’s Smart Start plan. She also represents the district as the Region III Principal of the Year through the Alaska Association of Secondary School Principals and said being involved in school start planning on the higher levels has given her a good feeling about what’s going on currently and what needs to be done to reopen schools.

All principals of Homer area schools — from McNeil Canyon to Anchor Point — have come together and made an agreement to work together with a shared understanding going forward into the school year, Dendurent said. It’s harder when you have schools in the same area doing different things, she said.

The district recently put on a leadership academy for teachers to iron out different aspects of returning to work. A teacher representative from Homer Middle attended that academy, and principals are taking the information presented there and presenting it to their own staff.

“So everybody is getting that exact same information,” Dendurent said, referencing the Power Point presentations made during the academy. “… I think that was the piece of it that has made it, I guess, smoother?”

Dendurent said as a principal she has to balance the varied concerns of her staff, before the students even return. Some teachers are scared, she said, while others are less concerned about the virus.

“As the principals, we just have to say, whatever spectrum they’re on, we need to understand that,” she said.

Some aspects of reopening schools have triggered strong opinions, like, for example, the district’s decision to require masks, Dendurent said.

“What I’ve told my people is, it doesn’t matter what my philosophy is,” she said.

If Superintendent John O’Brien said wearing masks is a policy, it’s Homer Middle’s policy, she said.

Dendurent said face-to-face collaboration will remain an important part of instruction for middle schoolers, and that goes for the ones learning remotely at home, too. The staff will find a way to keep them engaged, and specifically engaging with other students, via technology.

As an example, Dendurent said that could take the form of smaller “pods” within a classroom that collaborate when it comes to the hands-on portion of a lesson. For the remote learners, that face-to-face interaction can be maintained with the in-person students through technology like Zoom.

Remote learning and in-person instruction will be linked and generally happening at the same time, Dendurent said. It won’t be a situation in which a teacher completes an in-person class and then turns around and adapts the entire lesson for an online platform that the remote students would complete independently. Remote students will be expected to engage in real-time classes as they’re being taught.

When it comes to those in-person classes, Dendurent said the school has changed the classroom layout to account for more social distancing. Tables and chairs have been removed but are being stored in easy-to-access locations, like band and choir rooms, so that they can be added back in if more students end up attending school in person.

The seventh and eighth graders will be kept separate for lunch, teachers will be trained for sanitizing their classrooms and the school has decided not to have choir this year. The logistics of keeping upward of 70 students the proper distance apart while singing was going to be too difficult, Dendurent said.

Custodians will clean bathrooms every hour and students will sanitize their desks after each class transition.

Dendurent said she thinks the first two weeks of school will be when the numbers finally settle out in terms of how many students are learning in buildings verses remotely. She said the school doesn’t want students switching back and forth too much, but that transitions between remote and in-person education will be accommodated.

“We’re going to do what the kids need,” she said.

Consistency will be the key to those transitions, she said — making sure the education remains consistent when switching from one form to the other. Homer Middle School runs on a block schedule that alternates every other day, so students wishing to switch between remote and in-person learning can do that within 24 hours, Dendurent said.

Supervision to make sure school protocols are being followed will be key when school starts, Dendurent said. That means having teachers stay visible to students to be able to offer help and keep them on track.

“I think within that first week, it’s just, these are the expectations and this is what it looks like,” she said.

Homer High School Principal Doug Waclawski said many of the same precautions mentioned by Dendurent and Pederson are taking place in the high school as well. Extra furniture has been removed from classrooms to help keep students spaced out, some hallways have been turned into one-way hallways and the school is considering two separate lunch times to keep students more separated while they eat.

Waclawski said the school is set as far as sanitation goes, but that requiring more custodial hours for COVID-19-related cleaning would mean taking them away from their other duties, like vacuuming every room. Bathroom sanitation and cleaning of high-touch surfaces will be increased, Waclawski said.

As for students who choose to transition from in-person teaching to virtual, or the other way around, Waclawski doesn’t anticipate much of an issue. The proper notice will have to be given to teachers ahead of time, he said, so that they can make sure they have enough room in their class to maintain social distancing.

When it comes to students transitioning from in-person to remote learning, Waclawski said making sure technology is in the home is usually not a major issue at the high school level. When school went 100% remote in the spring, Waclawski said there were only five total students in the school who did not have the hardware or internet needed to do that learning at home. And by the end of the year, there were only two or three still in that situation.

Waclawski said high school students are generally used to taking a hybrid of in-person, online and even college classes, that navigating this year’s learning options shouldn’t be too big of a hurdle for them.

At the district level, all parents need to submit updated information for returning students. Online forms for returning students can be filled out and turned in to the district by going to communications.blogs.kpbsd.k12.ak.us/2020/08/07/new-returning-student-update-forms-online-portal-is-now-open/

Reach Megan Pacer at mpacer@homernews.com.

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