Community members participate in a walk-in at Seward Elementary School on Monday, Sept. 27 in Seward, Alaska. (Photo courtesy of Nathan Erfurth)

Community members participate in a walk-in at Seward Elementary School on Monday, Sept. 27 in Seward, Alaska. (Photo courtesy of Nathan Erfurth)

Seward walk-in supports COVID mitigation strategies

About 30 parents, teachers and students participated in a walk-in at Seward Elementary School on Monday to demonstrate their support for the implementation of COVID-19 mitigation strategies in Kenai Peninsula Borough School District schools.

Kenai Peninsula Education Association President Nathan Erfurth, who also participated in the walk-in, said Monday that teachers across the school district are experiencing burnout and that there is a desire to have a more “sensible” mitigation plan.

KPBSD administrators unveiled changes to the district’s COVID-19 mitigation plan earlier this month that included more guidelines for the use of face masks in physical education classes, an outline of when a school moves in and out of universal indoor masking and the discontinuation of weekly antigen testing for student athletes.

Erfurth said some of the people who attended Monday’s walk-in expressed frustration with what they called a “yo-yo-ing” of mitigation protocols. Multiple KPBSD schools have moved in and out of requiring universal indoor masking for staff and students this year.

KPBSD schools on the eastern peninsula, including Seward Elementary, Seward Middle and Seward High School, were operating with universal indoor masking until last week. Masks were not required at those schools as of Tuesday.

The relaxation of that requirement, Efurth said, motivated Monday’s walk-in, but the event generally was in response to a “worsening stability” of district schools as it relates to COVID-19. He spoke to some of the challenges teachers have dealt with already, including logging late hours, feeling unsupported and high absenteeism rates because of the district’s close contact protocols.

In a post shared to the KPEA Facebook page Monday, the group reiterated the shortcomings of the district’s current mitigation plan.

“Today, parents, students, and teachers in Seward got together to show their support for ensuring that we use all available mitigation tools that we have,” the post said. “The current plan often leaves staff & students exposed, results in numerous absences, and huge extra workloads to compensate. This year, with all of its instability, has been even more stressful than last year for us and our students.”

KPBSD Communications Director Pegge Erkeneff said Tuesday that she is unaware if the district formally responded to the group’s walk-in, but that everyone who reaches out to the district regarding the mitigation plan “has and will receive a response.”

“The district receives a full spectrum of responses to COVID and the KPBSD mitigation plan,” Erkeneff said via email. “Teachers with concerns can talk to their principal, or reach out to district office through a phone call, email, letter, or visit.”

Testimony given during the KPBSD Board of Education’s Sept. 13 meeting reflected a divided community. Some parents said the district’s COVID mitigation policies go too far, while others said they do not go far enough. Some said they would not send their kids to school if masks are required, while others say they would not send their kids if masks are not required.

In determining whether a school moves in or out of universal indoor masking, KPBSD uses criteria outlined in their policy.

A “conversation” between district administrators and school site administrators is triggered when a school district meets four out of five criteria outlined in the plan. Factors considered include a school community positivity rate of 3% or higher, a student absenteeism rate of 25% or higher, local and regional hospital and ICU capacity, a community’s COVID-19 case count per 100,000 people and the impact of a school’s staff absenteeism rate.

People can confidentially report a positive COVID-19 test for themselves or their child to their school nurse or to Nurse Miller by calling 907-260-2391 or by emailing MMiller@kpbsd.k12.ak.us.

KPBSD’s full COVID-19 mitigation plan, as well as community case numbers and quarantine protocols for vaccinated and unvaccinated students is available on the district’s COVID-19 website at covid19.kpbsd.org.

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

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