CALIFORNIA CITY — Students in California City and Mojave will finish the school year in a distance learning following a unanimous vote by the Mojave Unified School District governing board during a virtual meeting on March 2. The decision was based on providing continuity for students and teachers finishing out this school year, while paving the way for a return to a full in-class instruction in August.

According to Superintendent Katherine Aguirre, certain groups of students such as special needs, English language learners and foster/homeless youth will resume in the summer under the extended school year, as well as transitional kindergarten through second grade.

Aguirre said the distance learning option was the most practical, especially given the logistics needed to vaccinate teachers and staff prior to a return.

“It also allows our students to finish up the year without the transition back and forth between school and home,” Aguirre said. “Should we come up with some [COVID-19] cases at a school, that would prompt us to close down for 14 days. That could take us to the end of the school year.”

Aguirre said only two suspected or confirmed cases would be enough to prompt a school site shutdown.

A full re-opening for TK-5 will be possible in the fall, according to Aguirre. Secondary school students in middle and high school may return depending on whether the county’s COVID-19 rates reach the state’s “orange” tier under the Blueprint to a Safer Economy guidelines, and if the school district implements state public health guidelines governing class sizes.

The other option, based on the Assembly Bill 86 legislation signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, would have included bringing back K-2 students and small cohorts after district staff effectively reached a “full immunization” model based on vaccination efforts that started March 3. A report estimated that would occur around April 7, two days after the spring break period ended.

Secondary school students wouldn’t be allowed to return unless Kern County shifts into the “red tier” and and a safety evaluation by the state.

“Once we reach April 7, we run close to the end of the school year,” Aguirre said. “That would be just over 20 days of instructional time that we could try to transition students back to classrooms.”

Aguirre said the options were fluid.

Aguirre said a poll of families revealed a nearly even split of those wanting to see their children return to school or those wanting to continue distance education. Another poll indicated 52% of the teachers supported a return once they reached full immunization. 

The second option would’ve made the school district eligible for some of the $6.6 billion in grant money approved under AB 86 if students returned to in-class instruction within a certain window. Aguirre said the option would have required the school district to move “rather quickly” to have its special needs, ESL and foster youth students ready to return, along with its TK-2 students.

When and if students do return to school while the pandemic continues to be a problem, the district already has a safety plan in place, including social distancing and face cover requirements, temperature checks, classroom procedures and personnel protective equipment for staff. 

Staffing concerns were also another consideration in recommending distance learning over a staggered return to the classroom. Aguirre noted both classified staff and teachers would have to be ready to go, along with the appropriate number of substitutes to cover for people on leave taking care of family.

“There is a ton a logistics that would need to be put in place, especially when it comes to filling someone who becomes ill or just need a day off,” Aguirre said.

Aguirre added a host of other issues remain from when the school district first considered a hybrid model in the fall — chief among them transportation logistics.

“A large majority of our parents and families still rely on [bus] transportation,” Aguirre said. “When we map out the logistics of how we would get students to school and how long it would take and what protocols between the bus routes, that would take hours and hours.”

She estimated normal one-bus route would turn into one needing five buses based on only holding 20% capacity.

“That’s a long day for transporting students,” Aguirre said. 

The governing board supported Aguirre’s recommendation, considering it the logical option.

“It’s similar to what we discussed at the last meeting,” said board member Larry Adams. “Given any type of state approval that we’re not going to be sued or knocked around by making mistakes … that we continue as we are, run the summer school as advised and plan to open school next year.”

Board member Andrew Parker agreed, noting an attempt to return to class would likely result in a “yo-yo” effect should a COVID-19 outbreak force schools to shut immediately after coming back.

“The logistics of re-opening would be tough,” Parker said. “We’re talking 12 kids on a bus, five buses per route where we used to use one bus, trying to get kindergartners and first graders to keep masks on all day and not hug their friends, it just doesn’t sound doable.” 

He added “it would be the safest route for our students and teachers.” While bringing students back to the classroom remains a number one priority, he said, “we have to do it safely and fiscally responsibly.”

Board member Richard Walpole said “there are too many roadblocks in the way, so let’s go for fall.”

Some community members expressed support in the virtual meeting’s chat box. Educator Michelle Sturckow, however, advocated in favor of a return to class, no matter how short.

“In my opinion,  time left in the year should be less of a factor in returning this year.  Students need to have a sense of  normalcy in their lives,” Sturckow wrote. “Two weeks of in-school learning will be emotionally beneficial to students. I am asked daily by my students if we are coming back to school.  I would happily take on more students to give them a shred of happiness. “

She added that it was sad “pending litigation would drive the decision of what is best for kids” and that students have already been exposed to COVID-19.

“The district should already have been preparing classrooms for the soonest possible return,” Sturckow wrote. “It is the easiest thing to do.”

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