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A new wave of Kern County schools open their campuses to students

Wednesday wasn't the first official day of school for Bakersfield Christian High School but, aside from the nippy October air, it felt like one. The varsity squad jolted sleepy-eyed students awake with cheers of "Welcome back!" Students panicked over finding their first period class. And freshmen were nervous about stepping foot onto a new campus and making new friends.

"It's kind of exciting and kind of nerve-wracking to know I'm going back to school," said freshman Logan Templeton.

The southwest Bakersfield campus was one of several schools to fully open its doors to in-person learning for the first time in nearly eight months. When Kern County entered the less restrictive red tier two weeks ago thanks to lower coronavirus rates, it began a countdown leading up to this day. Schools no longer need county approval to open, and there are no state restrictions on which students can come to school — only strict guidelines on campus safety, such as mask wearing, social distancing and disinfecting.

Many of the schools that opened Wednesday included private schools that had already partially opened through county waivers. Many of the smaller public districts in Kern County will continue to open through their waivers, but Wednesday also marked the day when increasingly larger public districts could begin bringing on campus. 

Some of the schools that opened Wednesday in Kern County include all of the Catholic schools run by the Diocese of Fresno. Those schools, which include St. Francis and Our Lady of Perpetual Help, were able to bring students up through sixth grade on campus through a county waiver. But now those campuses can bring back seventh and eighth graders, and Garces Memorial is also able to open its doors.

Mona Faulkner, the superintendent of Catholic schools for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno, said that she's optimistic about the next wave of reopenings in Kern County. So far her office has overseen the return of 3,500 students, including all students K-12 in Fresno County that have opted to return.

"Everybody is so eager to be back that people, in my experience, are being great," she said.

Garces Memorial Principal Myka Peck found that to be true. On Wednesday, the school welcomed seniors back onto campus with "Class of 2021" face masks, and a lesson on new COVID safety procedures. She said the students were respectful of the new rules — arrows directing them through hallways, temperature checks before every class — because they were just grateful to be back.

"You can see their smile sparkle through their eyes," Peck said. "It was an emotional day, for sure."

Two public school districts in Bakersfield — and one in Taft — plan on opening up their campuses to a new crop of students on Thursday.

Both Rosedale Union and Norris school districts plan to start bringing students back to campus on Thursday on a very similar timeline. Like many local school districts, they have already had special education students on campus — one of the few groups of students allowed to return to campus for in-person learning, even when a county is in the purple, or most restrictive, tier. 

Both districts will welcome kindergarten as well as transitional kindergarten on Thursday. Then each week, the districts plan to bring back one or two grades until Dec. 3, when all the students who have opted to return for in-person learning will be back. Taft City School District, too, will be welcoming kindergarten as well as transitional kindergarten and then subsequent grades in the coming weeks.

Norris School District Superintendent Kelly Miller said the last few weeks have been especially challenging as they prepare for students to arrive but she's been looking forward to it for eight months.

"We’re very excited," she said. "We’ve been in the planning stages for so long."

The district has been trying to create campus-by-campus plans, depending on how many students return — it's been about 75 percent districtwide — or remain in distance learning. Elementary campuses will have morning and afternoon cohorts, while middle schools have A and B cohorts who will each come to school two days a week. That has meant a few students will end up switching teachers to accommodate the new in-person schedules.

Miller said the regular meetings with other Kern County superintendents have been especially useful, because the districts are able to share what has worked as they anticipate the first students' arrival this week.

"We’re excited and nervous at the same time," said Rosedale Union Superintendent Sue Lemon. 

Her district was one of the first to declare itself ready to open when coronavirus cases were subsiding in Kern County, and it looked like schools might soon open. Many have since followed suit, and there's a benefit to that. All the schools that open while the county is in the less-restrictive red tier are allowed to stay open should cases tick up, sending the county back into purple.

Amy Walker, the head of Heritage Oak School in Tehachapi, which welcomed the upper grades of the K-12 school back this week, said she hopes that the state doesn't change that guidance.

"We feel like this is an essential need for the health and well-being of communities," she said.