While the vast majority of students in Kern County continue to log on each morning to attend school virtually, each week more schools are beginning to open. Most of them are private schools.
Kern County remains on the state's most restrictive "Purple Tier" because of the rate of COVID-19 in the community. That means that schools have to stay closed to in-person learning with exceptions only for the most vulnerable students, such as special education students and English learners. But the state has also offered up another process that allows schools or school districts to appeal directly to the counties for a waiver to open up to all students in transitional kindergarten through sixth grades.
So far 20 waivers, all publicly available on the county's website, have been approved by the Kern County Public Health Services Department and, of those, 17 have been private schools.
A NEW FIRST DAY
After beginning the year with distance learning, Catholic elementary schools in the county began to open their doors to in-person learning on Monday.
Jessica Giannelli says that her daughter's teacher at St. Francis has done an amazing job within the limits of virtual learning. But she says it's been a tough year for her daughter Cecily to start at a new school as a first-grader, knowing few people.
"Starting online was horrible," she said.
But this week the school has gradually begun to bring in students in rotating groups. Cecily came in for just two days this week, but it's made a huge difference.
"She’s done a 180," Giannelli said. "She’s in a good mood. She wants to tell me everything about her day."
St. Francis is slowly phasing in other grades, but Giannelli's been told that Cecily will be able to go back full time Oct. 1. The mom, who is juggling her own teaching schedule at BHS while her husband works in agriculture, said that day can't come soon enough.
Giannelli isn't alone in that sentiment.
A Pew Research survey last month found that 28 percent of Americans want their children to continue distance learning full time, but those numbers are largely much lower in schools with approved waivers, according to surveys. That number is 6 percent in Immanuel Christian School in Ridgecrest. Twenty-five percent of Stockdale Christian families said they would probably return and zero percent said they would definitely not; the rest were on board.
Thirteen percent of families told St. Francis they wanted to continue distance learning.
"Our families are in hardship while trying to work from home, keeping track of their children, and helping them with their education," St. Francis Principal Kelli Gruszka wrote in her county waiver.
Mona Faulkner, the superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Fresno, said that Bishop Joseph V. Brennan made the decision to apply for a waiver in all five counties of the diocese, including Kern. Faulkner said the diocese has found it crucial for children to be able to be together safely at school and "to pray together in times of trouble and to have that connection to their faith."
Faulkner said that she has worked with each principal on their waiver to meet the unique needs of their community. She believes her schools have gone above and beyond state guidance to make sure that should there be any community case of COVID-19 that pops up at a school, the diocese's attention to safety would prevent further spread in the community.
"We don’t want to be the source of any kind of setback, so we made everything very tight," Faulkner said.
In their plans, schools are asked to address issues such as cleaning, entrances, protective gear, distancing, staff training, and family education and communication plans. Many of the plans adhere to guidance released from the California Department of Public Health and updated Aug. 3, and they look remarkably similar.
Most schools will have staggered entrances, daily temperature checks of students, mask requirements and desks at least 6 feet apart. Most schools will have at least some families continuing to do distance learning. One of the schools in Kern County with the highest percentage of families staying home is Our Lady of Guadalupe. Faulkner attributes this to a community with students who are more likely to have elderly relatives living with them.
But there are some areas of the guidance that leave a lot of leeway. The state says "students must remain in the same space and in cohorts as small and consistent as practicable" but doesn't specify a number.
Some Kern private schools' plans for cohort sizes vary widely. Northwest Christian Schools, a school in northeast Bakersfield whose enrollment is 50, refers to their cohorts as "pods" and writes in its waiver that each will be no larger than 10 to 12 students. Heritage Oak School writes in its waiver that its cohorts will be no larger than 14 students.
Larry Ahl, head of Stockdale Christian School, said his school plans to have two classes for each grade level with 18 to 24 students per cohort.
Michelle Corson, spokesperson for the county health department, said the cohort number varies based on classroom size.
"Some classrooms are large enough to hold the students at 6 feet minimum distance between desks and would result in a higher cohort size," Corson said.
These cohorts are important. These are the students that students will stick with the whole time in order to make contact tracing easier in case a staff member or student is diagnosed with COVID-19. They will typically stay in the classroom together, play on the playground together and eat together.
There is a state trigger point for closing down the whole school and switching to distance learning — when 5 percent of the population is diagnosed with COVID-19 in 14 days — but many schools will only switch the affected cohort to distance learning if there is just one case.
Giannelli said she knows what the risk factors are, but she feels good about what St. Francis is doing to keep students safe. Class sizes are capped at 20, there are sanitizing machines and the school has been good about keeping in contact about everything that is going on in the school.
"I’m really not scared like I was back in March. I’m not feeling that way any more," Giannelli said.