School board fields criticism of remote learning

As of Friday, 35 district schools were operating at high-risk level, meaning learning is conducted 100% remotely and buildings are closed to students.

After the time limit for public comments was extended to accommodate the number of people who wanted to speak at Monday night’s Kenai Peninsula Borough School District school board meeting, a shared sentiment was clear: students, parents and teachers are struggling and dissatisfied with remote learning.

Almost all who spoke at the Nov. 2 meeting criticized the limitations and shortfalls of remote learning. During the meeting, protesters stood outside Kenai Central High School holding signs that pushed for the reopening of district schools to on-site learning.

As of Friday, 35 district schools were operating at high-risk level, meaning learning is conducted 100% remotely and buildings are closed to students. The district announced Wednesday that eastern and southern peninsula schools — 17 in total — would continue remote learning through at least Nov. 13. Central peninsula schools are also operating remotely through at least Nov. 13.

In determining whether to reopen a school to on-site learning, the district and their Medical Advisory Team analyze 14-day positive case counts and the seven-day positivity trend, consult with medical providers and review their school decision matrix.

Rhonda Baisden, who said that keeping schools closed was an “overreach” of the school board, was one of many who spoke on the mental strain remote learning is putting on students.

“As a mother I continue to hear that you are for the children — everything you do is for the children — yet I look around at my children’s friends and even my own and they are affected by this isolation detrimentally,” Baisden said. “People are put in isolation for punishment, not for recovery.”

Ronnie Whicker said she is a mother of seven children, six of whom are school-aged from kindergarten to high school, who are struggling with remote learning. Whicker said she has a teacher in Utah tutor her kids in math.

“They have gone from straight-As to anxiety [and] disengagement,” Whicker said. “They’re not growing and they’re not thriving. They’re not being challenged in this online community.”

Nathan Erfurth was one of few who supported the district sticking to the protocols outlined in their Smart Start plan. Erfurth said that while it is clear that students learn best in person, the community has backed itself into a corner with COVID and must get itself out.

“Calls to fully open schools regardless of the public health risk rely on a combination of denying science, ignoring the context of the studies we’re all citing, and ethically questionable reasoning,” Erfurth said. “We will not achieve herd immunity without avoidable suffering and death unless we use a vaccine to do it.”

Mandi Patrick, another KPBSD parent, also voiced her support for keeping learning online. Even though children may not experience extreme illness after catching COVID-19, she said, it is not fair to the elderly teachers and family members who children may spread the disease to.

“Everyone’s saying, you know, ‘the numbers aren’t that bad,’ ‘it’s not that fatal,’ but it’s not OK if one or two die,” Patrick said. “It’s not OK if we lose one or two students. It’s not OK if we lose one or two teachers … and I think it falls to the community to start masking up and using the sanitizer.”

Teachers also joined in the call for changes to the current model, with some advocating for a plan that is more sustainable.

Tara Swanson, who teaches fifth grade at Seward Elementary School, said she is hesitant to support the resumption of in-person learning when the district hasn’t put forward any long-term plans for if teachers or other school community members get infected.

“I understand there’s a lot of students who need to be in school and there’s a lot of parents who need support,” Swanson said. “My issue as a teacher and as a community member, though, is that these plans are moving forward without any safety net in place for teachers or really for families or kids who get infected either.”

Students who spoke said that the difficulties they have faced during remote learning include communicating with teachers, who sometimes do not respond to emails, and vocational classes that rely on hands-on instruction and are not easily taught online.

Everett Strong said he is a senior and isn’t sure what he wants to do after graduation, so he took more than one vocational class this semester.

“I feel that taking us out of school isn’t giving us an opportunity to learn and is not an effective way of learning,” Strong said. “Online school should be an option for people who would rather do that than risk COVID, but I still believe that it should be an option.”

In a Wednesday announcement, the school district said they will be circulating a survey to parents and older students as a means to solicit further feedback from the community. The survey is already being conducted among staff.

In the same announcement, KPBSD Superintendent John O’Brien said that new plans are being sent to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, to the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development and to the school board “for approval and adoption.”

“We fully understand the hardship that moving to remote learning has caused on students, families, and staff,” O’Brien said. “The emotional and mental health toll is real and has been significant.”

During 100% remote learning, Get-It and Go meals are free for all students and can be picked up daily at school. Pre-K, kindergarten and special education intensive needs students can still attend classes in-person during 100% remote learning.

Operational risk levels, case incidence rates and case numbers by community are updated daily on the district’s risk levels dashboard at covid19.kpbsd.org/dashboard.

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