KENAI — One week after the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education approved changes to their Smart Start plan, parents are planning a strike and protest for Tuesday to voice their opposition to those changes.
During their Dec. 7 meeting, the school board approved changes to their Smart Start plan, which the board first approved in July and outlines how peninsula schools should operate in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. As of Monday, 35 peninsula schools were operating 100% remotely until at least Dec. 18 due to COVID-19.
The original iteration of the district’s Smart Start plan said that schools at “high risk” would operate 100% remotely. Because of surging COVID-19 cases in the peninsula and across the state, 34 district schools have been operating 100% remotely for nearly two months.
Last Monday, the board approved changes to how schools would be allowed to operate while at high risk. The new version of the plan allows kindergarten through sixth grade students to attend in person classes five days a week, even if their region is at high risk. Additionally, students in grades seven through 12 will be allowed to return for on-site learning on an A/B schedule. According to the revisions, the earliest the new high-risk operations will go into effect is Jan. 19. The changes also include the creation of a new “extreme risk” level, at which the district is still able to shift schools to 100% learning on a school-by-school basis.
At their Dec. 7 meeting, which lasted for more than seven hours, the board heard parents, students, teachers, medical professionals and members of the community share their thoughts on the proposed changes. Nearly all of those who spoke were in favor of reopening schools, citing concerns about students’ mental health, poor academic performance and an overall bad experience with remote learning.
Though the district approved changes to the plan, some parents feel that the changes do not go far enough.
Since the Dec. 7 meeting, two separate strikes have been organized by KPBSD parents who don’t want to wait until Jan. 19 for in-person classes to resume.
One strike, scheduled for Monday, Dec. 14, was organized by Shannon Ferguson, who said she has four elementary-aged children in pre-K, kindergarten, third and fifth grades. Like many other parents of children in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, Ferguson, who is a stay-at-home-mom, said her family is struggling with remote learning.
“The most challenging is being able to continue daily tasks on top of Zoom meetings,” Ferguson said, adding that between her two elementary-aged children she attends 25 Zoom calls each week.
Ferguson’s strike called for parents to keep their children from attending Zoom classes on Monday. In organizing the strike, Ferguson said she hoped to communicate to the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District her frustrations and dissatisfaction with prolonged remote learning.
“I want the teachers to know that this is not on them at all. We know that they have no control over this whole situation,” Ferguson said. “This is to let the school districts know that we are parents and we want our voices heard.”
A second, in-person, protest and strike are scheduled for today (Tuesday, Dec. 15) from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the intersection of Kenai Spur Highway and Sterling Highway in Soldotna.
The Facebook group behind the strike, which is called “Done with DISTANCE, We need your ASSISTANCE!” had 477 members as of Monday evening. The group’s stated objective is to have a date set for when all students in all grade levels will return for in-person classes, five days a week. If a new date is not set by then, supporters will no longer participate in distance learning or Zoom.
Andie Bock, who is one of the group’s administrators, said Monday that the group was created mostly in response to a feeling among KPBSD parents that their testimony during the Dec. 7 Board of Education meeting fell on “deaf ears.” Bock said parents have made calls and sent emails but have received no response.
James Baisden, who serves as Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce’s chief of staff, and his wife Rhonda have both been vocal about their support for resuming on-site learning. They started a petition on Change.org that advocates for all students to return to in-person classes, five days a week, as soon as possible. As of Monday evening, the petition had received more than 500 signatures.
“Parents on the Kenai Peninsula want schools open for all grades, now,” the petition description reads. “The job of KPBSD is to facilitate educating children, not push an agenda forcing our community into a false sense of safety.”
Additionally, the petition says that teachers, like nurses and firefighters, are essential workers and that waiting to open schools until Jan. 19, 2021 is “unacceptable.”
“My kids need to be back in school full time! They miss their friends, teachers and a normal routine,” wrote Amanda Munro, who signed the petition Monday. “As a parent working full time through this entire pandemic, I can only do so much to help my kids with their school work. They need their teachers.”
It is possible for schools to resume on-site learning prior to Jan. 19, if enough cases are lost from different regions’ 14-day case count, which determines a school’s risk level.
As of Monday, the central peninsula needed to lose 494 cases from their 14-day case count in order to drop back into medium-risk level. The southern peninsula needed to lose 79 cases and the eastern peninsula needed to lose 17 cases.
In response to the strike, KPBSD Communications Director Pegge Erkeneff said Monday that it is possible for schools to reopen before Jan. 19 if community spread slows.
“KPBSD looks forward to the option for youth to attend school on-site, sooner than later,” Erkeneff said Monday. “If community transmission of COVID-19 is diminishing in January, it’s very possible schools could open to the on-site learning option sooner than Jan. 19, 2021.”
Erkeneff also confirmed Monday that the absence of students in school after winter break will not impact the district’s funding, which is based on the 20-day count in October. However, students’ attendance determines their eligibility for participating in ASAA sports, such as Nordic Ski, which is happening now, hockey and basketball. Some club sports have continued independently of schools.
More information on Tuesday’s protest and strike can be found in the “Done with DISTANCE, We need your ASSISTANCE!” Facebook group.
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at firstname.lastname@example.org.