While some groups of students have been attending school in-person for some time, many more of them entered their halls and classrooms for the first time since mid-October on Monday.
Schools across the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District resumed onsite education on Monday. Previously, a large majority of them were offering remote learning only to most of their students, due to being in the high-risk level for community spread of COVID-19. Under the district’s new policy, schools are able to be open to in-person education even when their region is at high risk.
The KPBSD School Board at their meeting in early December unanimously approved the changes to its Smart Start plan to allow more students back to in-person education. Before that, students in pre-K, kindergarten and special education were already able to attend school in-person, as were students the district identified as being more at risk without face-to-face education. Starting Monday, all elementary school students were able to attend in-person school five days a week, and middle and high schoolers can attend two days a week on an A/B schedule.
Those are the parameters the district set, but they look slightly different when applied to each school.
At Homer High School, for example, Principal Doug Waclawski said he they realized it would be too difficult to redesign the schedule to have half the students there two days, and the other half there on two different days. Waclawski said the end goal was to have only half the students in the building at any given time. To achieve that, Homer High is going with an every other week schedule, where the students are split in half alphabetically with the first half attending school all five days a week, followed by the second half of the students the following week.
Each group will have one full week on, and one full week remote.
“We feel giving them five days in a row would be better social emotionally,” Waclawski said. “… For us to do anything else … we would totally have to re-do our schedule. That’s not just our classes but that’s everything that we offer.”
The students in the A-K section of the alphabet will be in the building for one full week, followed by the students in the L-Z section.
The big benefit to separating the students this way is that, if a student in one cohort contracts COVID-19, the school would close for that week and those students would be quarantined. The other half of the students, however, would not be affected and would likely be able to come back to the building during their week as scheduled.
A few other things have changed or gotten more strict in this second attempt at onsite education during the pandemic. For one, Waclawski said the previous stance on keeping students and staff 6 feet apart was that it should be done “when possible.” Now, that distance requirement is really going to be pushed, he said.
There may still be times when 6 feet of separation isn’t quite possible, like during labs. In those cases, Waclawski said the school will utilize pods or very small student groups to minimize contact. A student’s lab partner, for example, would be the same partner they have for the rest of the class.
Wearing face coverings will be enforced at all times, except when students are eating lunch. When they are eating lunch, Waclawski said students also need to be 6 feet apart.
Should the situation change and require a return to full remote learning, Waclawski said he’s confident the transition would be smooth for Homer High, given that the students will already been in person for one week and remote for the next.
“What we’ve tried to do the whole year is make it smooth and seamless,” he said.
During the previous stint that schools were open to onsite learning, Waclawski said Homer High had very few COVID-19 cases pop up. More than that, those cases were kept from spreading further within the school.
“We just don’t want to school to be a spreader,” he said.
Waclawski said he’s feeling confident about the situation given the southern Kenai Peninsula’s current COVID-19 numbers. He said that if parents are having issues with any school policies, they should call the school and voice them. School staff are open to working with families and being flexible, he said.
Another example of flexibility during a difficult time is Homer’s alternative high school, Homer Flex School. With a smaller population and more unique student needs, the school has been conducting onsite learning for about a third or half of its students since before winter break.
Principal Chris Brown said the school worked with families and students to identify who would most benefit from continued in-person education and connection with teachers. Those students have been able to attend onsite for the last several weeks. All students had the option to return on Monday, but Brown said there are a portion of Flex students who have opted to stick with remote for the foreseeable future.
Whether they are remote or onsite, Flex students are in class five days a week.
As one of the team members that has helped form and amend the school district’s return-to-school planning and policies, Homer Middle School Principal Kari Dendurent has taken a route that sticks close to the vision of A/B student scheduling the district put out.
Students at Homer Middle have been split into two groups. One of the groups will attend onsite school on Monday and Thursday, and the other half will be in the building on Tuesday and Friday. All students will be remote on Wednesdays.
The school has also designated teachers specifically for remote education. That is, teachers leading in-person classes will not be teaching students virtually at the same time.
“We completely redid our master schedule,” Dendurent said of making it happen.
When all is said and done, teachers will see their students twice a week in person and three days a week remotely. Homer Middle is also utilizing smaller student cohorts. Dendurent said the smallest cohort right now consists of eight students, and the largest is 18.
“Those students travel with their same pod to every single class period,” she said.
This means little to no mixing between student groups. Homer Middle offers six different math classes for its students, so in the end the best way to form these cohorts was according to which math class they were in, Dendurent said. The school was also able to accommodate siblings to try to make sure they are in the same group, she said.
The middle school has a handful of students in both seventh and eighth grade that will be staying 100% remote, as well as 20-25 students that were identified as candidates for needing onsite learning five days a week. Those students have been attending in person since before the winter break. On the days that the rest of their cohort is doing remote learning, those full-time students will attend a study hall with a teacher.
Dendurent stressed that the process to get Homer Middle ready for this new type of scheduling was not completed overnight. It involved many conversations with the teachers, and the staff feel pretty confident with the plan now.
“It was hours and hours of recreating a master schedule,” Dendurent said.
In addition to the A/B schedule and face coverings, Dendurent said the district had new ventilation systems installed.
“That’s huge,” she said.
There’s also been an upgrade to the way school buildings are cleaned and sanitized.
Dendurent echoed Waclawski’s sentiments when it comes to social distancing, saying “it’s no longer just, do the best you can.”
“You need to do it, and if not we need to look at solutions,” she said.
Overall, Dendurent said the students have been doing a good job of adapting to their changing circumstances. The biggest thing she wants to achieve is consistency for families.
If the southern peninsula were to get back down to a medium-risk level, Dendurent said staff would evaluate before allowing all students back to school five days a week (which is allowed under medium risk). She said she’d want to wait until the region was firmly in the medium-risk zone before making that kind of change.
For Paul Banks Elementary School Principal Eric Pederson, the halls haven’t been as empty lately as they have at other schools. Paul Banks serves students in kindergarten, so those kids have already been attending onsite.
For the addition of first and second graders, Pederson said the school will continue its practice from earlier this school year of keeping the students in cohorts.
“We broke down our pods even smaller than we had initially,” he said.
Elementary school students are attending onsite five days a week.
While younger students were previously exempt from wearing face coverings, they will be required for students in all grades moving forward. Pederson said “it’s all a learning environment” at the level his school teaches. The face coverings and cohorts are still a new concept for the young students, so it won’t be a punitive thing, he said.
Pederson said he tried to be clear with the families who send their kids to Paul Banks that the staff would just do its best to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 as best they can.
Paul Banks will have more students attending in person than staying remote. The biggest hurdle so far has been rescheduling the classes to accommodate the small cohorts, Pederson said.
He also noted the new ventilation system and the new method of spraying and sanitizing rooms as recent improvements. The teachers at Paul Banks also have plexiglass dividers, staff members have face shields, and more.
Pederson said his staff have been working hard to make this second round of in-person education successful. He said the main focus will always be to provide a quality education. The school is also working on ways to continue some of its other programs, like its annual read-a-thon that normally comes with the school assembly and celebration at the end.
Staff will also need to be mindful of where returning students are at socially and emotionally after a large break from onside education, Pederson said. That means some students might need more social and emotional attention from teachers before they can dig more into academia.
“It really comes down to personalized learning,” Pederson said.
For more detailed information about the district’s Smart Start plan, Get It and Go meals, sports, risk levels and more, visit the district’s COVID-19 hub on its website at kpbsd.k12.ak.us/content.aspx?id=42180.