MOJAVE — Mojave Unified School District declared schools in Cal City and Mojave open for in-person instruction on Oct. 28, but students’ return to campus will be slow, according to Superintendent Katherine Aguirre.
Kern County has remained in the second tier, or red tier, of California’s COVID-19 framework for more than two weeks — a benchmark required for K-12 schools to re-open. Since March, all lessons have been done via distance learning to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
“We can proceed with bringing groups of students back and more importantly, we can operate a little more independently than before,” Aguirre said. “Before, we were more closely tied to the county’s public health department and to the county office of education. Now we can be more responsive to our community and individualize our re-opening.”
Not all students will return at first, Aguire said. The first group to return will be students with special needs for a small portion of the day.
“We’re proceeding very slowly, keeping the health and safety of our students and staff at the absolute forefront,” she said. “We are in the planning stages for several groups, for our English learners, our homeless and foster youth that are showing signs of struggling the most in their classes.”
She added there is also the possibility of high school athletes returning to campus for conditioning, depending on the flexibility of students’ decisions with certain sports.
Mojave Unified sent out a survey to parents asking for feedback, including their willingness to return children to school.
“We’ve gotten some feedback from parents but we would like everyone to respond to it,” Aguirre said. “Right now, we’re pretty split and are looking almost even between those who are willing to come back and those that are not.”
Mojave Unified School District enrolls more than 2,800 students in six schools between Mojave and California City. All of them were required to be taught via distance learning when the school year started Aug. 6.
The district made the decision at around the same time Gov. Gavin Newsom rolled out a revised framework for re-opening the state a second time, including the requirement that all schools in counties most impacted by COVID-19 metrics would remain closed until conditions improved.
While most businesses in Kern County would have to re-close indoor operations if the county backslides into a more restrictive tier, school districts that have already re-opened may stay open.
No matter what, those schools must also adopt stringent health and safety guidelines, including face coverings, structured social distancing, general hygiene protocols and a restructured transportation protocol.
Learning loss has been a concern for both the district and for parents who voiced concern over the difficulty inherent with distance learning.
Aguirre said the district has offset this slightly by employing tutoring, including and a 24/7 tutoring program contracted by the district.
“We have a group of students, especially our teenagers, who have to work later in the day and might need help at all hours,” Aguirre said. “We also have some teachers adding extra hours to their regular teaching time in order to help students that are struggling.”
The district also extended its credit recovery program for high school students falling behind; the program traditionally operates in the summer.
“It’s been a super successful program and we’re already had students recover a total of 660 credits that they were previously missing and keep them on track to graduating,” Aguirre said. “That’s been a huge undertaking because we have teachers who are running both their regular classes and a credit recovery classroom.”
In general, as more students come back to school, Aguirre said more learning loss mitigation programs will be added to help lagging students get back on track.
However, Aguirre credited the teachers with an amazing ability to adapt.
“They went from full in-class instruction with some technology to full technology,” Aguirre said. “We have an outstanding technology team that was able to acquire, set up, disseminate and maintain a one-to-one Chromebook program for students.”
Should schools need to close down again following a sharp surge in COVID-19 cases, Aguirre said the district would be limber enough to transition back to a distance learning model.
“Once we’re back to ‘normal’ where everyone is in school all the time that we would ever give up the technology,” she said. “It wouldn’t make sense for our students to not use the technology the entire world is using professionally and academically.”
‘Long time until we return to normal’
Aguirre acknowledged a return to normalcy remains uncertain, including extracurricular events such as dances, in-person student clubs and rallies.
Schools will need to abide by the state’s health guidelines, ensuring cohorts remain manageable and student sizes small to prevent COVID-19 from spreading and forcing schools to shut down to handle an outbreak.
“We’re going to be a long time before we return to anything close to what we call normal,” Aguirre said.
MUSD is making plans to have athletics resume, starting with conditioning and using CIF State guidelines, the district awaits feedback from a survey sent out to address that concern.
Aguirre said due to condensed seasons, students will have to make serious decisions on what sports they will want to participate in. CIF State in July made the decision to condense fall, winter and spring sports; for example, football is slated to start in January, at a time when basketball is already in play.
“The students will have to make a choice of what sport they want to participate in,” Aguirre said. “They won’t be able to do sports that used to be in different seasons ... it would be impossible to be in two places at once ... they can’t be at football practice, basketball practice and baseball practice all at the same time.”