Kern County Superintendent of Schools Mary C. Barlow hosted a press conference March 16 to address school closures that began March 18.

The eventuality that Kern County Superintendent of Schools hoped would not occur became reality Wednesday: schools will remain physically closed for the remainder of the academic year.

But learning is far from over for students and teachers. 

"It was not unexpected," said Kern County Superintendent of Schools Mary Barlow, referring to Gov. Gavin Newsom and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond's recommendation Wednesday to keep schools closed.

During an online news conference Thursday morning, Barlow said Kern County's 47 school districts had been planning for any eventuality, but remained optimistic students would head back to school at some point.

"We genuinely hoped that we would be able to open up our classrooms again and reunite our children with one another ... and with their teachers in the hopes that they could have that connection and end their school year with all of the ceremony and social emotional aspects that come with school," she said.

Since that reunion will have to wait, local districts will be ramping up efforts with distance learning. A primary aspect is making sure each student has a personal device and internet connectivity for the remainder of the school year. 

For the first few weeks of school closures, students were issued paper learning packets to complete assignments at home. In the meantime, districts assessed how many households needed electronic devices or internet connectivity to make online learning available. KCSOS estimated around 40 percent of students fell in that category.

Several districts this week began distributing Chromebooks to students. Erin Briscoe, public information officer for the Kern High School District, said around 7,400 were distributed as of Wednesday. KCSOS has also sourced around 20,000 Chromebooks.

For households without connectivity, buses equipped with Wi-Fi are parked in locations throughout the county for certain periods of time. Wi-Fi has also been set up in neighborhoods and libraries, and KCSOS ordered around 2,000 mobile hotspots.

"We are 100 percent committed to figuring these things out together and ensuring that we meet the needs of local students and families," Barlow said.

Districts are also using several online platforms for distance learning, such as Google Classroom and Zoom. KCSOS announced Wednesday that Canvas is also available to any Kern County school district.

In the coming weeks, districts will receive clarity regarding how grades, graduation, transcripts, scholarships, summer school, continued distance learning instruction and several other issues will be addressed. 

New grading and graduation guidelines have been established by the California Department of Education. It indicates, in Barlow's opinion, that all students, for the most part, will be moving on to their next grade level, including those on track to attend a college or university, as they would have absent of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But there's no guarantee students won't fall behind. There's no way to monitor all students to make sure they are moving at the same pace as they navigate distance learning, Barlow explained, because districts are utilizing different online platforms. Some students will also have to continue to rely on paper packets.

"When we're able to see a student and connect with them on a daily basis, we're better able to assess how they're doing physically, emotionally, socially and academically," Barlow said. "We can do this through this kind of chat room, but if they're not connecting ... turning on their video or their phone or connecting with their peers, it's much more difficult for us to ... assess where they are and deliver what they need."

A decision on whether summer school will be available has not been determined.

Whether graduation ceremonies will go on this spring has also not been determined at this time. 

"Grab and go" meals will continue, although some districts have made changes to which locations are serving breakfast and lunch and on what days. According to Barlow, around 108,000 students countywide are served on a daily basis and "that has not slowed down" during the closures.

Ema Sasic can be reached at 661-395-7392. Follow her on Twitter: @ema_sasic.

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