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Kern County's slide into the red tier opens up the possibility of junior high and high school openings

With COVID-19 rates dipping into the red tier in Kern County, it opens up the possibility that some junior high, middle and high school students may be able to return to campus for the last few months of school.

On Tuesday, the county’s public health department announced Kern’s COVID-19 daily case rate had finally declined below the most widespread purple tier level in the last week. So now school district administrators, who typically prefer months of advance planning, are cautiously penciling in next Wednesday, March 24, as the first day they’d be allowed to reopen. That happens to be the Wednesday before many schools districts’ spring break.

If the county stays in the red tier over the next week, that means grades seven through 12 will be allowed to open for in-person instruction under state guidelines.

Many other schools that have already opened had previously done so under a county waiver or by fully reopening when the county was in the red tier for a few weeks last fall. But many of the county’s larger districts did not open then.

Most administrators, who have previously said they were eager to bring back older students, said they weren’t ready to give an exact return date in light of the news about local COVID rates.

Kern High School District plans to bring students in its career and technical education programs in person immediately once the county is in the red tier. The district submitted a waiver to the state to bring back groups of these students the way it had in the fall when the county was last in the red tier, according to district spokeswoman Erin Briscoe. But so far its waiver has not been approved. Now it’s more likely that students will return to the district’s brand-new Career Technical Education Center and the Regional Occupational Center for hands-on learning March 24.

Opening under the red tier gives districts more flexibility, because they are not required to submit their COVID-19 safety plans to the state. They are expected to post the plans on their website at least five days before offering in-person instruction.

KHSD is holding a special meeting this Thursday evening. Superintendent Bryon Schaefer will discuss updated phased reopening of the district’s school programs, including sports. At its last meeting, Schaefer announced the administration’s intention to open up the campus to seniors on April 12.

So far, the district has been welcoming back its stable groups allowed under the purple tier, including special education students, Briscoe said.

Elementary school districts have been able to open since the daily new case rate dropped under 25 for every 100,000 residents at the end of February. But they have only been allowed to bring back students up to sixth grade.

With the impending news, administrators of local elementary districts said they expected to announce dates for reopening shortly.

Panama-Buena Vista Union School District had announced at last week’s board meeting tentative plans to offer in-person instruction to seventh graders on March 22 and eighth graders April 6, pending the county’s move into the red tier.

Assistant Superintendent Jennifer Irvin said that updates on those dates would be shared Wednesday. Its elementary students began to return to campus March 4.

Bakersfield City School District had not previously announced a date for offering in-person instruction to its seventh and eighth grade students, but district spokeswoman Tabatha Mills offered a time frame.

“BCSD is targeting mid-to-late April for the return of our middle school and junior high students, pending the move into the red tier,” Mills wrote in an email.

She said BCSD is on track to bring back special education students as well as preschool through second graders on April 8. On April 12, the district plans to bring back grades third through sixth at the district’s elementary school sites.

Greenfield Union School District has a board meeting Wednesday morning, and Superintendent Ramon Hendrix said it would share details about reopening soon, as well. Its students up to sixth grade returned March 8.

The state set aside $2 billion for schools that open quickly. Those that open by April 1 are eligible for that money, but they lose a percentage of the money they’re eligible for every day they don’t open for in-person instruction.