Over the last two weeks, Bakersfield City School District has experienced the quarantine of 925 staff members and students, marring the beginning of the year that was heralded as a fresh start as children returned to campuses.
"We're entering October 1 in a couple of days and it feels like June 1," Superintendent Mark Luque told the board at its Tuesday night meeting. "Let's just be honest about that: It's been the longest year ever and it's just October."
Staff who are out require substitutes, who are in short supply. The parents of students on quarantine complain paper packets of work are inadequate and lead to their students falling behind. BCSD administrators said that was apparent from the beginning of the school year, and they're working to fix it.
"It's an educational disruption, it's absolutely not OK," Luque said. "We have to find better solutions."
BCSD is far from alone in experiencing disruptions in the county. Kernville Union shut down two of its campuses for two days when a spike in COVID cases led to staff shortages. Quarantines because of an exposure or sometimes because of COVID-like symptoms have become a major source of frustration for parents at other districts.
BCSD district administrators at Tuesday's board meeting explained that the thorniest problems revolve around the state's guidance on independent study, but they said a new law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last week will help them address some issues.
In the prepandemic era, independent study was used relatively infrequently. But this summer, the state mandated that campuses offer in-person instruction with independent study as the exception.
Students on quarantine can only go on short-term independent study for up to 14 days. Parents who say their students' health would be put at risk can opt for long-term independent study. In the era of the delta variant, there are a lot of students on short or long-term independent study.
BCSD calls this its long-term version course-based independent study. The district has 1,533 students currently enrolled in independent study, and there are 818 students on the waitlist. There are 60 teachers teaching those students remotely at 22 schools.
From the first day, the district noted issues that are still plaguing them. The high number of students in short and long-term independent study has created logistical challenges.
The paperwork alone in ensuring that all parties have signed independent study contracts when a student is going on quarantine suddenly is daunting, demanding full days of clerk duties, according to Tim Fulenwider, executive director of the instructional support services division.
BCSD noted that it is running into a new problem: Some students are being quarantined for a second set of 10 days, thus running into the 14-day limit for short-term independent study.
They could be sent into the course-based study, where students receive live synchronous instruction. However, with the exception of transitional kindergarten, every grade at BCSD has a waiting list of at least 79 students.
State offers 'a glimmer of hope'
Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 167, which clarifies some of the requirements of independent study, such as allowing students to "Zoom in the room" for independent study, Luque said.
Luque said the bill provided "a glimmer of hope." He said with this clarity, he hopes to bring a plan to the board that will reduce the number of days students are in quarantine and will improve the quality of education.
One part of that plan is asking parents whose students qualify for modified quarantine to opt into a COVID-19 testing program. Unvaccinated students who are masked and exposed at school can test to stay in school. Other local elementary school districts including Panama-Buena Vista Union and Rosedale have expressed interest in such programs, though recently rapid testing kits have been in short supply.
Luque also said he is interested in working with the teachers on an agreement that may allow students on quarantine to do hybrid — as much as the district has tried to avoid it. This will require negotiation with bargaining units.
The district is developing a new asynchronous website that helps parents walk through independent study that is beyond a paper packet of work, according to Laura Orozco, assistant superintendent of educational services.
Board members address quarantines
Trustee Chris Cruz-Boone said at Tuesday's meeting the last month has been especially trying for her as a mother and aunt in the district dealing with quarantines. She said the district is doing its best to deal with a tough situation.
She pointed to Berkeley and Los Angeles as denser places where there are fewer quarantines in schools, because the community case rates are lower.
"We need parents, we need families, we need the community to step up, stop the spread of COVID in our community, so we don't have to send kids home, so we don't have to send staff home," she said.
Board President Pam Baugher noted that Kern County's vaccination rate is below California's average, and she encouraged the community to take safety precautions.
Trustee Shannon Zimmerman, a teacher who works outside BCSD, said she is considering walking away from her career because of what she has experienced in the classroom this year.
"It's not just the mask, it's all of it," she said. "Not having students in my class, not ever meeting some of my students. Missing anywhere from five to 10 students every day. Packets that are being sent home with no support."