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Kern County education community says it's built resiliency through the pandemic

On March 15, 2020, a joint statement from the Kern County Superintendent of Schools and Kern County Public Health Services made it official: All schools in Kern County would close starting March 18. The statement said the closure was "temporary," but a year later COVID-19 has left a deep imprint on the lives of students and everyone involved in their education.

The work of educating 194,000 students and providing the services that come with that education not only didn't stop, but it kicked into high gear in the homes of teachers and students, district offices and on the curbs of schools where meals were handed out. 

"It’s an amazing story of resiliency," said Jesse Aguilar, a local representative of the California Teachers Association.

He said many teachers spent long hours training themselves on new programs and tools and setting up work stations in their homes, while dealing with many of the same issues that others were dealing with during the pandemic, such as educating their own children and dealing with COVID-19.

Educators and leaders in Kern County said that in the middle of a crisis the education community has done tremendous work that will serve it beyond the pandemic. 

At the administrative level, Kern County Superintendent of Schools Mary Barlow said that the trend of all 47 school districts in the county working together was accelerated by the pandemic. The county was already on track when it signed the Kern Education Pledge in 2018 vowing to work together to share resources. The county office has working groups that focus on specific goals or content areas, such as math and social emotional learning.

"When this pandemic hit, we immediately put those working groups into play," she said.

So when a directive would come out about child care — which was allowed to remain open throughout the pandemic — a working group from the county would break down the details of the policy and share it. And in the early days of the pandemic complex, ever-changing directives were coming out from the state, and they were tackling new problems, like providing meal service and improving WiFi access to communities. 

At the height of the pandemic, superintendents were meeting twice a day. But that spirit of working together has remained. One of the county's projects is to work on making sure families have access to the internet, which she compares to a utility like running water.

"Because we are all collaborating so much, we’re getting better at work we do," Barlow said.

In the near future, Barlow said she expects schools will offer summer academies, Saturday schools. Students will likely be masked up in the fall as well, but it will feel a little more "open," she said.

But one thing that will remain long after the masks disappear is the county is working together. One example is the Kern Integrated Data System, or KiDS, which allows the county to pinpoint issues across schools and target them. One example recently was sharing news of tumbling grades across districts.

While Barlow and educators say that reopening classrooms for in-person learning is crucial, they say that the lessons that have been learned with distance learning are ones that are good for the education system.

"We will no longer be bounded by brick and mortar classrooms," Barlow said.

Aguilar said it has long been an issue trying to figure out how best to serve students who are sick or in the hospital, and what educators have learned in offering distance learning opens up some possibilities.

"There’s opportunity in any tragedy," said Keith Wolaridge, a board member for the Panama-Buena Vista Union School District and also a local delegate for the California School Board Association.

He and others marvel at the transformation and innovation education has undergone since March. Education doesn't always move so rapidly, he said. But he said this year has given educators new models that meet students' needs. He said that going forward, students who preferred distance learning should be given that option.

Everyone is looking forward to the day that schools fully reopen, and that day feels increasingly within reach, even for the many parents who are still concerned about sending their students back to classrooms. Even in many local districts that are just beginning to reopen for the final stretch of the year, roughly half of families have indicated they're interested in sending their students back. 

That's true in Bakersfield City School District. Matt Ashley is the parent of four children who attend Downtown Elementary. Distance learning has had its struggles, but he and his wife have weighed the risks and they don't feel it is safe yet.

Ashley, a physician, knows that the risks to his own children are minimal but he worries about children carrying and spreading coronavirus back to unvaccinated family members throughout the community whose immune systems may not be able to handle the virus as well. 

"Why lose the race in the last 100 yards?" he asked.

He expects that when school starts in fall, he will be safer when the vast majority of adults have had a chance to be fully vaccinated as well as school staff. But he understands how difficult distance learning is for some families.

"For my family, we’ve been able to find a way to make it work," he said.