ROSAMOND -- Rosamond students will start the school year on Aug. 12 on a hybrid schedule, spending two days in school, one day of distance learning and two days of at-home study and assignments.
The decision comes following a 3-2 vote by the Southern Kern Unified School District board of trustees Wednesday night at Rosamond High School. The district will reassess whether to return to a five-day schedule after five weeks from the start of school.
Board president Yolanda Sanchez and board trustee Jim Bender dissented. The decision was selected from a list of five alternatives crafted based on input from teachers, staff, administration and a community survey.
The decision follows some other school districts in the state as a precaution to prevent the spread of the 2019 novel coronavirus, which has flared back up in the last month.
The board received a presentation on the options from Superintendent Barbara Gaines. Rosamond Teachers Association president Jim Quellman also provided input during his report to the board.
Gaines said there was “no right or wrong decision” and that some people will respect the board’s decisions. Others will hate it.
“Whatever decision is made, we have things in place,” she said.
A survey including 650 parents helped develop five recommended alternatives, including three hybrid options, a full return to class five days a week with proper safety guidelines in place and the option to start the fall via distance learning.
The plan the board accepted will see two cohorts alternate their days in class. Group A would attend schools Mondays and Wednesday, Group B Tuesdays and Thursdays. Fridays would be reserved for distance learning. During the two days at home, students would work on assignments and study.
For special education students, which is a small segment of the student population, a five-day schedule would be feasible.
As part of the hybrid model, health and safety would be at the front, with daily temperatures taken of all students and staff with touchless thermometers, additional handwashing procedures and hand sanitizers distributed to every occupied classroom and facility.
“Some people are very, very reluctant under the COVID-19 (crisis),” Gaines said.
Gaines said at some point Southern Kern would need to return to a “whole level of education” for the sake of students’ social-emotional wellbeing.
“When kids are at home, they miss out on the social-emotional component of being at school,” she said. “They need to be with friends and in front of the teachers.”
Gaines stated that since Gov. Gavin Newsom issued the statewide March 19 order to lock down, “there was a tremendous loss of learning, not just at Southern Kern but across the state.”
“I don’t know if we can ever measure the amount of education kids lost in Southern Kern in the last quarter,” Gaines said. SKUSD, like other school districts, closed down following an April recommendation April 2 from Kern County Superintendent of Schools and moved to disseminate take-home paper packets for its students during the last quarter of the school year.
Equitability would also be a top priority to help students and families who lacked wireless internet at home.
Board member Mario Gutierrez asked about options for families who wanted to keep students home and pursue complete distance learning, including those who did not have internet access.
“They could still be on track with the same curriculum and be able to stay up with the rest of the students when we do go back to a full schedule,” he said. “We’re going to have that group of people who don’t want kids attending school yet.”
Gaines said as a local education agency, the district was obligated to place additional measures beyond an adopted reopening plan to accommodate all students’ needs.
“Once we know all the options, communication will go out to parents,” Gaines said.
Students and staff would be required to maintain social distancing and masks required for all staff. In addition, planned safety requirements would include masks for all students during school activities, including entering and exiting schools. Glass dividers would be installed in school offices, desks arranged to provide social distancing and walkways marked.
Students who rely on school buses for transportation would be assigned one to a seat with every other row vacant. Sacked meals for breakfast and lunch would be provided to students who attended school; grab-and-go bags would be available for those who did distance learning.
According to survey results, 44.9% of respondents stated they prefer their child return to a traditional face-to-face environment with the necessary safety precautions in place.
When asked about a blended model, 64.26% of parents said they prefer to have all their children in the same cohort, or those attending the same day. If social distancing guidelines and safety precautions are satisfied, 67% of parents said they would consider sending their child back to school five days a week.
Just over 75% said they wouldn’t need child care on the days their child wasn’t in school. When it comes to internet-based or distance learning, 88.34% of the parents said all of their children in a house could be online at the same time.
Should students return to school full time, SKUSD might find it difficult to meet state-mandated social distancing guidelines, provide a greater risk of cross-contamination between students and staff and put schools in possible liability if the district can’t follow state or county public health recommendations.
Cross-contamination was something Quellman had concerns about.
“It will be extremely difficult no matter what model we use,” Quellman said. “The planning and how it will work will be vital.”
He added social distancing will be a challenge in many cases.
“Keep in my, with 15 students in class, maintaining social distance at six feet won’t be possible; it will be more like four feet apart,” Quellman said. “And that’s middle school students who stay in place.”
He said distance learning for elementary students would require more effort, as students at lower grade levels might not be as adept at using Chromebooks or online lesson plans as secondary school students.
“My prep period will be used in a variety of ways,” he said, including planning, holding some office hours, or answering emails from students or parents. “I was blown away (in April and May) by how busy I was.”
Quellman noted starting with an all-distance learning model would be difficult “but we will do whatever we have to.”
Tanksley a concern about possible delays in communication from teachers to parents and students during distance learning days.
Tanksley asked if Fridays for distance learning is opening the door for students and teachers alike to not participate.
He also brought up operational concerns related to cleaning.
“We didn't have enough custodians to keep up under normal circumstances,” Tanksley said. “We’ve got a lot of acreage here and not enough people.”
Quellman said there is risk, but that teachers would need to follow certain work guidelines as outlined in their contracts.
Board member Jim Bender said a total distance learning could create anxiety for students, especially the lower primary school grades.
“I believe kindergarten, first and second grades are important for students, it’s a foundation for them,” he said.
Quellman said there will be ripple effects with any option, and that transitional kindergarten teachers expressed concerns similar to Bender’s. He added many teachers, including himself, held reservations returning to the classroom.
In regard to avoiding liability after re-opening, Gaines said the best way is to show the school district has been following public health guidelines. Liability coverage for staff under exposed to COVID-19 isn’t covered under the district’s current memo of understanding, but that could change if an assembly bill passes onto the governor’s desk.
Gaines said secondary school provides some difficulty because students move from class to class.
Additional considerations will need to be in place should the state order another complete shutdown of schools in the event a second COVID-19 wave occurs.
Discussion and Decisions
Bender said the decision was a hard one, adding that the district will need to do what is best for everyone, including teachers “who are on the front lines.”
“We have to put our faith and trust in you (the teachers) because you are the teachers,” he said. “I believe we are going to get through this.”
Bender later added that he wants to see a return to a five-day schedule, but separating students remains a challenge.
“I think we should return to school full time and let’s look at this in November,” Bender said.
Board clerk Carol Robinson proposed placing students into quadrants once they all return to school. The plan would involve a barrier in classrooms, with groups of students entering one at a time.
Students would not interact with the other groups. Start times would be staggered at different class levels, with students having their temperatures checked before entering their classrooms.
“Eventually we will all have to get back in our classrooms,” Robinson. In a statement later in the meeting, if the district continues under the state’s current education guidelines “our students will not get the education they need.”
She later asked if it would be possible to delay the start of the school year. Gaines said some school districts were exploring that option.
Board president Yolanda Sanchez noted that SKUSD shouldn’t compare itself to other school districts, and should pursue its own course based on community feedback. She added that the district should look at the Kern County’s COVID-19 metrics compared to other counties.
Tanksley favored the Plan 4, but stressed it should be revisited every quarter. Doing so, he said, would give teachers a good benchmark to evaluate how their students are doing and the district fares with safety procedures.
“We need to do a dry run from the bus to the end of the school day, from the students’ eyes, teachers’ eyes and (staff) before school starts so that we don’t look like monkeys on the field,” he said. “We’ve got to put everyone at ease before the school year begins.”
In voting for the plan, Robinson, the board clerk, said the district should revisit the plan about five weeks into the school year before motioning to adopt a hybrid system.
Any option allowing for in-class teachers will require all school site classrooms and facilities to be disinfected every evening.
Plan 1 follows a similar pattern as Plan 4, but better aligns with the district’s current school calendar. In-person instruction days would be split by distance-learning Wednesdays. This would allow teachers to check in on their students prior to coming back to school on that Thursday/Friday.
However, students would only spend at most 73 days in school. In addition part of the Wednesday distance learning day would be spent going over plans for the following week.
Another hybrid student would provide two days of teaching in a row for each cohort, followed by a distance learning day on Fridays. Like Plan 4, minimum days would be shunted to Fridays and Mondays treated as part of a four day holiday. The school year would start Aug. 17 under this plan and afford students up to 75 days in class.