COVID is surging in Kenai Peninsula schools but district won’t require masks

An empty hallway lined with red lockers.
Lockers at Kenai Central High School. (Sabine Poux/KDLL)

In the week since the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District started tracking COVID-19 cases, 130 students and staff have tested positive for COVID-19 while 930 others were identified as “close contacts” of cases.

“We are seeing, compared to last year, far more positive cases and people needing to quarantine,” said district spokesperson Pegge Erkeneff. “It’s completely different this school year than it was last year. And that’s because delta is completely different.”

The school district is reintroducing some of the mitigation measures it abandoned this summer, Erkeneff said, like seating charts in classrooms and on school buses, staggered lunch periods and a stricter emphasis on keeping students in pods.

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But it’s still not adopting a universal mask mandate for district schools. Universal masking has been controversial among parents and borough officials, despite guidance from the CDC that students and staff should wear masks inside classrooms as the highly-contagious delta variant spreads. In the district’s mitigation plan, masking is a suggestion, not a rule.

However, a handful of the district’s schools do have mask mandates in place. 

The district is deferring to tribal authorities that have mask mandates, Erkeneff said. As of Monday, that included the Tebughna, Susan B. English and Port Graham schools.

The Nanwalek School is currently 100% remote due to a hunker-down policy in the village.

Also, Seward Middle School, Seward High School and Moose Pass School and Seward Elementary School recently started requiring masking because of coronavirus cases. The universal mask rules last until at least the end of next week.

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Per district policy, students exposed to COVID-19 do not have to quarantine when all students linked to an exposure were wearing masks.

Contacts who are vaccinated and asymptomatic also don’t have to isolate or quarantine. In most other cases, students are required to take classes remotely until they’re allowed back in the classroom. 

Erkeneff said the district is not adopting a universal masking policy at this time. She said it’s too soon to tell whether universal masking is stopping the spread of COVID-19 at individual schools, since the policies are new. 

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But, she said, the district is encouraging more masking amid high levels of community spread.

“You will be starting to hear a stronger ask from the school district and from our different trusted school leaders to please, please, please consider wearing a face covering,” Erkeneff said. “It’s not going to be forever. But we need to really protect ourselves and protect each other as COVID is just rapidly spreading in our communities.”

Erkeneff said Superintendent Clayton Holland is meeting with district leadership daily to talk about COVID-19 numbers. A new medical advisory board is also advising the district on its mitigation policy.

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