Despite a bump in the number of COVID cases in Kodiak’s public schools, Superintendent Larry LeDoux recently remained optimistic that the Kodiak Island Borough School District would remain open.
“I think everyone in Kodiak inside or outside the school system knows that we face tough times in the community,” LeDoux said during an update to the school board Monday night. “I have been and continue to be confident that we will find a pathway through this.”
However, the current Kodiak outbreak does come with its challenges, LeDoux said.
“Our staff is under a lot of stress, there is no doubt about it,” LeDoux said. “Principals are exhausted, making decisions in their buildings and every decision being second-guessed, sometimes with grace, sometimes not. … But they are doing the best they can to tend to their schools, students and staff.”
He said that while the district remains concerned about the increased COVID numbers, schools continue to thrive.
“In spite of this epidemic, our activities are coming along strong,” he said. “We are sending students all over the state, and we test them when they leave and again a few days after they return home.”
He acknowledged there have been a few outbreaks, such as within the football team, but it hasn’t impacted activities overall.
“The reason I think we are doing so well is because we’re testing a lot,” LeDoux said. “Even our coaches are telling the kids that they have to protect themselves.”
PARENTS REQUEST SCHOOL CLOSURE
A few parents who spoke Monday during the citizens’ comments portion of the meeting asked the district to close schools until the COVID outbreak subsided.
“I would like you to strongly consider closing schools,” said Kodiak resident Matt Gandel, who has children attending North Star Elementary. “After school ended last year, I think we all had high hopes for a more normal school year this year, but obviously things have not worked out as well as we had hoped.”
Gandel said his fifth-grade daughter’s class had only six students out of 21 attending class in person on Monday.
“Her teacher was forced to juggle between teaching six kids in person and 15 online,” Gandel said. “This is unsustainable as more close contacts are forced to quarantine and school nurses spend most of their time keeping up with contact tracing and teachers get overwhelmed and burnt out when teaching in person and online.”
Gandel said closing the schools last year was perceived as an overreaction. Now, he said, there is a greater understanding of COVID and how it spreads.
Kodiak resident Abbie Cottle has children attending Kodiak High School, and noted her family has gone through a lot of testing.
“In the past two weeks, we’ve had six close calls and had to get COVID tests over and over,” Cottle said. She said her children are getting vaccinated.
Like Gandel, Cottle advocated for closing down the schools for safety reasons. She also urged all district employees to get vaccinated.
LeDoux said he receives a lot of opinions and comments from the community. While he disagrees with some and agrees with others, “I listen to them all because I value the wisdom of the crowd.”
“A lot of the decisions made aren’t from me; it’s from a lot of folk working together,” LeDoux said.
LeDoux said the first question he usually receives is: When will the district close the schools? But it’s not that simple, he said.
“Some of the things we have to consider in how we respond to this epidemic in our schools is the building-level contagion, who is infected, where they are infected — Is it in the classroom or is it community spread?” LeDoux said.
LeDoux said it wasn’t easy to simplify outbreaks or close contact calls because “every positive case has its own story that we need to analyze.”
Close contact tracing is another factor, he said. The district follows CDC guidelines in contact tracing, headed up by a team of school nurses, administrative assistants and volunteers “late into the evening and the weekends.”
“The physical and emotional health of our staff is a concern, as is how they are working through this,” LeDoux said. “They are stressed.”
The district’s substitute pool remains taxed, with only 24 available, compared to nearly 75 three years ago.
“If we don’t have enough substitutes or enough adults to put in front of children, we can close a school for that reason alone,” LeDoux said.
The biggest concern when closing schools is when to re-open them and the logistics behind that effort.
“It’s really easy to close a school — we’re prepared, we know how to do it,” LeDoux said. “As far as logistics go, we’ve trained and practiced for it. It would be a little sluggish at first but we could make it happen.”
But closing down the schools for an extended period has its consequences, he said.
“It’s very difficult to re-open and then there is re-connecting with the students who have fallen behind,” LeDoux said. “I believe that schools are still the safest place for our kids to be. They are masked up. They don’t have clothing and we take care of it, we refer them to medical and report abuse.
LeDoux said academics are also a concern.
“We learned last year that a lot of our students regressed substantially, and it’s hard to catch them up,” he said. “Parents have to spend time and ensure students are doing well in their studies, and show support while helping them online to be successful.”
But not all families have that option, he said, which affects the district’s mission to be equitable to all students.
“When we close the schools we have immediate regression because many of our parents are working full time or multiple jobs,” LeDoux said. “Some of our families have five or six children. Some don’t have the bandwidth or a place to sign on to do their homework. We saw this in our secondary schools. … Kids just fade away and slowly disengage.”
Career technical education classes suffer because they can’t be taught online. Programs and activities stop.
“If we close based on the premise that kids are catching it, then how do we allow activities,” LeDoux said.
‘SCHOOLS REFLECT THE COMMUNITY’
LeDoux said the best way to evaluate COVID in schools is to look at the health of the larger community.
“All the literature indicates that schools reflect the community,” LeDoux said. “If you have COVID in the community, you’re going to see it in the schools. So it comes down to this: The more the community does to contain the virus, the less you’re going to have it in the schools.”
LeDoux said the district has reported 53 positive cases among its students and staff.
“We aren’t sure where they came down with it, but we’re sure most of them can be traced to family outbreaks, which means the kids are close contacts to those who are already positive,” LeDoux said.
By extension, he said once schools close down, a downward spiral starts that strain community resources.
“It closes down the community,” he said. “It’s not my main concern — kids are my concern — but when you look at the reality of things, once we close schools, we have daycare problems and lots of challenges that cycle through the community.”
Employment becomes an issue as well, especially with the district’s contract bus drivers.
“How do we keep our bus drivers and how do they get paid?” he said. “If we lose our bus drivers, when our schools re-open what are we going to do? We’re already short on bus drivers.”
LeDoux said there was no clear pathway to decide whether to close schools, other than waiting and tracking the course of the COVID spread.
But there are things the schools can do short of closing that hopefully will help control the spread.
“We can and we have sent students home who have tested positive,” LeDoux said. “We can close classrooms if we feel that there has been a spread in the classroom. We’ve closed four so far. … But we don’t have to close the school.”
The district could also close a school for two weeks if the contagion was serious enough, but the other ones could continue on.
LeDoux said teachers are trained to provide some fashion of blended learning for students sent home.
“We are setting up blending learning programs in the elementary and secondary programs,” LeDoux said.
However, there are limits to what the district can do, especially if individual parents pull students from class and try to opt for blended learning.
“We can’t support that,” LeDoux said. “It is very difficult for a teacher to do blended learning long term. They can do it for short periods for students who are out because of COVID. But to do it on a regular basis ... we don’t have the staff to make it work.”
SCHOOL BOARD SHOWS SUPPORT, CONCERN
School board members largely backed the efforts made by district staff to keep schools open, but also shared concerns.
Board member Dave Johnson was perplexed by the disconnect between schools and community.
“I feel like our schools are doing everything humanly possible to prevent kids from contracting COVID,” Johnson said. “Then they are going home into a community that doesn’t appear to be doing anything to stop it.”
Johnson asked if LeDoux had observed anything from the Kodiak Emergency Services Council that more aggressive action would be taken to curb the spread.
LeDoux said the general consensus is one of concern, especially when seeing people not wearing masks in public indoor venues.
Board member Duncan Fields said he was comfortable with a “20,000 foot approach to risk assessment that focuses on safety and the educational value of remaining in the classroom.”
Fields said he observed that some parents are making decisions based on individual risk assessments, while also asking the school district to adjust to that same pattern.
“Individual decisions are far different than institutional decisions,” Fields said. “It’s important to underscore that by saying you’re dealing with multiple variables at many schools with consequences for large numbers of students, while individuals are dealing with kids they know very well.”
Board member Judy Carstens said she understands the empathy from all sides — parents concerned about COVID rates and district staff’s ability to mitigate the spread — but agreed with LeDoux’s approach.
“We are open in difficult times and it’s due to the effort of so many different people,” LeDoux said. “Kids will have lunch tomorrow. Tomorrow we will have some new cases. There will be no doubt about that. … But we will get through this.”