The School District says it will have some on-site school, especially for younger students, but the schedule is still being negotiated (Corinne Smith/KFSK)

The Petersburg School District has announced they will have a mixed-model of some in-person class and some online instruction this fall. But exactly how that will work is still being negotiated. As Petersburg has seen few COVID cases, the outlook is good for some kind of in-classroom learning. But with about 500 students and staff to plan for, district officials say the biggest challenge is negotiating across major divisions among the community about health and safety.

Right now, the District is working on determining how students and their families will participate in classes – what mix of in-person vs online school. And, creating that plan involves reaching across a wide divide between conflicting community opinions. according to Superintendent Erica Kludt-Painter. “There are very very strong feelings on both sides of many issues. So it makes it really challenging to try to navigate a way that you can provide a program, and supports for 470 students and their families.”

Those findings were based on summer-long community discussions and a working group of parents and teachers, and the findings of one community survey so far. Masking is one example of a very contentious issue in the community. Kludt-Painter describes the divide: “If you impose, you know, a mask mandate I will not have my child participate in public school. And then just as strongly, if you don’t implement a mask policy, I will not have my child participate in the school district.”

Like other states, Alaska has issued guidelines for school districts, but protocols for reopening are determined locally. While early research has found children typically experience less severe symptoms of COVID-19, there is risk of the virus being transmitted in the school setting – between families, students, teachers and staff. “The fact is, returning to a normal before the school closure, it just won’t be possible at this point,” says Kludt-Painter.

Alaska Chief Medical Officer Anne Zink warns Alaskan children are susceptible to becoming very sick due to underlying health conditions. Between one-third and one-half of children in the state are overweight or obese, and in 2017 nearly 11 percent of teenage students reported smoking in the last month, though it’s likely higher, according to Dr Zink who testified before the Alaska State Legislature’s Education Committee on July 23.

The Alaska Department of Education has a color coded warning system for school districts – green, yellow and red – based on the level of local transmission risk. It’s part of the ‘Alaska Smart Start 2020‘ framework for reopening schools. On that scale, Petersburg is in good standing, as COVID cases remain low this summer. But that could change at any time, so schools can’t afford to act like business as usual.

“We don’t have a right to do that, because we’ve been given guidance about that, and we have a responsibility and a duty to do the best we can, to focus on the safety of all, students and staff,” says Erica Kludt-Painter. “The challenge is to have those protocols in place and still have a positive learning environment.”

The District says on-site school will have cleaning protocols, smaller class sizes and be spread out across campus (Corinne Smith/KFSK)

The first district survey also looked at what worked during the spring closure. It found Petersburg is set up well for continuing remote learning with reliable online infrastructure and internet. Internet providers stepped up and offered free or subsidized internet service and so almost all families were able to connect remotely, according to Kludt-Painter. They also partnered with the Petersburg Library to have a book mobile, and distribute reading material to younger students.

The Superintendent emphasized that the district has to maintain a low risk environment for teachers, many of whom are at-risk. For their protection, and to avoid long or frequent quarantine times. “If we can keep everybody, our adults in particular, as healthy as possible, we’re going to be able to provide a more consistent program for all. Because if we’re constantly having to pull teachers out, and they’re out for 2 weeks for quarantine, then we’ve negated all the work that we’ve don’t to try to have in person education.”

KFSK reached out to the union, but the Associated Teachers of Petersburg declined an interview for this story.

Petersburg schools will likely have a staggered schedule, with smaller class sizes, spread out on campus, and alternating days. The challenge there is staffing and funding for those additional hours, as well as teachers balancing both in-class and online instruction, possibly at the same time. Kludt-Painter says the sick policy will be very strict, so as to keep risk low.

The first community survey found families are in overwhelming agreement they want some kind of in-person instruction, says Kludt-Painter. Especially for students with special needs, and for younger students. “You know it’s pretty difficult for a kindergarten student to engage in a Zoom call…even five or six or seven students on a call, and you’re going to have a lot of feet up in the screen and you know, it’s not necessarily a lot of education for a six year old.”

A second community survey, which just closed today, aims to get an exact headcount of how many students will be on-site vs online. That will determine teachers’ schedules, class sizes, and funding for the district.

Superintendent Kludt-Painter says its understandable families are anxious and concerned with so much uncertainty. But she says she’s hopeful, and the district will lead with caution in order to keep school open and everyone healthy. “We’re going to have to start probably in that yellow zone, it’s going to have more restrictions, it’s going to have more protocols,” she explains. “The goal being, we can hopefully pull those things back a little bit as this thing evolves, and we find out more information and see how things go. We’re living the biggest social experiment of our lives. That’s how I feel, we’re living it.”

The School Board is scheduled to meet for a work session this Friday July 31 at 5:30pm, the meeting is open to the public and information to log on is posted here. The District is expected to publish a first draft of guidelines for school reopening next week, and will be collecting community feedback.

Note: The story that aired on KFSK on Wednesday July 29 said guidelines would be published this week, however the District has postponed releasing those guidelines for reopening schools until next week.