If you close your eyes, Celeste Gonzalez’s kindergarten classroom sounds like a traditional kindergarten class. The General Shafter School teacher is conducting a lesson about counting numbers. Principal Sandra Johnson is gently reminding a student how to hold a pencil. Another student proudly announces “I’m done!” as he finishes his work page.

But Gonzalez’s classroom no longer looks like the traditional kindergarten classroom where students would congregate on the floor for story time or at tables for science. It has undergone a radical transformation with the goal of preventing COVID-19 transmission. Those changes have enabled General Shafter School District to become the first public school in Kern County to open its doors, in stages, to K-5 instruction since coronavirus unceremoniously shuttered them this spring.

“We are keeping them safe,” Gonzalez said. “That’s a top priority.”

Furniture like teacher’s cabinets and U-shaped tables have been taken out of rooms so that students’ desks can be spaced out. Each student desk is outfitted with a three-sided plastic barrier that allows students to see their teacher.

There’s a contactless sanitizer dispenser at the door of the classroom and every room in the school. A stack of surgical masks hangs at the entrance. They’re highly encouraged but optional for students up to second grade. So far every student has brought their own from home, and they mostly stay on their faces, too. An air filter runs in the back during the lesson. There’s a thermometer on the back counter for morning temperature checks, or in case a student feels ill. Cases of water have replaced water fountains; each child gets a new water bottle every day with their name on it.

At one point during the lesson, a student asks for his water bottle. An aide offers it to him, then sanitizes her hands after the exchange is finished.

SMALL DISTRICT, SLOW ROLLOUT

General Shafter is a small district — just one school with 179 students — but it’s an expansive one whose boundaries stretch along Highway 99 from Houghton Road to the Grapevine. Those two factors contributed to the district’s decision to slowly bring students on campus in stages.

Internet quality is extremely spotty in the rural areas the district serves, even if families have both Wi-Fi and a hotspot, said Superintendent Chris Salyards. But he says it was also easier as a small district with only 11 teachers to put a plan together, have the board approve it and submit a waiver to the county.

“We’re taking everything slow,” Salyards said. “But we’re happy to have kids back on campus.”

This week only kindergarten will be on campus at General Shafter School. Next week, first grade students will be joining them. The week after, second grade students will arrive. When the second quarter begins, third, fourth and fifth grade students will join them. State guidelines do not permit seventh and eighth-graders to return to in-person schooling in counties like Kern that are in the most restrictive “Purple Tier” because of COVID-19 rates. But the district plans for sixth through eighth grade students to arrive on campus during the second semester, if that changes.

So far the only other public district in the county to successfully submit an approved waiver is Caliente Union School District, another one-school district in the mountains of Eastern Kern with 53 students that plans to open next month, according to its waiver.

Schools and school districts that submit a waiver to the county health department to open for in-person schooling are required to have procedures in place if there is a suspected or confirmed case on a school site. Many of the procedures are standardized: for instance, many will close and go back to distance learning if 5 percent of students and staff are diagnosed with COVID-19 in a 14-day period.

If there is a confirmed case, a liaison from the district coordinates with the county, which will conduct contact tracing, said Michelle Corson, spokesperson for the county’s public health department. It is the school’s responsibility to notify parents, staff and students about potential exposures.

Salyards said everyone on campus is doing their best to prevent exposure. Custodial staff go around the campus constantly to make sure bathrooms, door knobs and rails are cleaned regularly. The campus has ample green space and an amphitheater, which teachers hope to take advantage of, too.

“Teachers are talking about creative ways of providing instruction,” he said.

Not all students at General Shafter School will be returning for in-person learning. Salyards said about 60 percent to 65 percent of students plan to return. Each grade level has one teacher, and classes are expected to max out at 16 to 17 students.

Of the 20 kindergartners in Gonzalez’s class, 12 students were in her classroom this week. In the afternoon, she conducts the same lesson she did in person for the other eight who are continuing to do distance learning.

Some of those students may continue to learn virtually for the rest of the year, Salyards said, but some of them will come back to school when the district begins transportation. Right now all the students on campus are being brought to school by a parent, so students who rely on the bus, some in the far-flung corners of the district, are still learning at home.

When more students come on campus, Salyard said students’ entrances and exits will all be staggered to reduce contact. He said the gradual rollout of in-person learning gives the school a chance to make sure it goes smoothly.

FIRST WEEK IN KINDERGARTEN

Megan Heinlein, the mother of three students at the school, said she was “hesitant” about bringing her son back into a classroom for kindergarten, even though she wasn’t thrilled with the prospect of continuing distance learning. But she says the school’s approach eased her worries.

“They keep in constant communication,” she said. “Questions are answered before they’re even asked.”

District parents agreed: More than 97 percent who responded to a survey said they rated communication from the district excellent or satisfactory.

It’s only the first week, but Gonzalez said her virtual routines have transferred seamlessly to the physical classroom, and she notices that students have retained what they learned while they were distance learning.

But the new kindergarten classroom also includes some new lessons. Gonzalez says that she’s taught students how to wash hands properly, not just a quick rinse under the sink. And she also tries to explain in friendly terms why the students are sitting at least six feet apart from each other in the classroom.

“It’s not about scaring them,” Gonzalez said. “I say, ‘Let’s respect our friends and give them room.’”

Heinlein said that she sees people on social media saying that classrooms now look like prisons or that they refuse to send their children to school in a mask. But she said her 5-year-old son, Lane, hasn’t been bothered by any of it.

“He hasn’t complained about the mask or one thing,” she said.

Salyards said for many of the students in kindergarten, this is their idea of a normal school day, since many of them have never been in a classroom. He said it’s mostly adults who seem to need the most adjustment to the changes.

“This has been a reminder of how resilient kids are,” he said. “They learn to adapt.”