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Kern High School District says it could return small groups of students in March

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This chart shows the timeline of how Kern High School District responded to the fall, then dramatic rise of case rates of COVID-19 in Kern County. Recently, the case numbers have begun to rapidly decrease. 

The Kern High School District held a special board meeting on Wednesday to address spring sports and the meandering path to bring students back for in-person learning.

The board unanimously granted superintendent Bryon Schaefer's request to begin bringing back small groups of vulnerable students onto campuses once again in March.

The latest decision is the most recent in a long line of educational starts, stops, attempted reopenings and eventual closures since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Kern County last March.

The district submitted an application to the state on Feb. 12 as a part of what is called the Safe Schools for All Specific Safety Review. This allows the district to submit its safety plans to the state and possibly bring on more cohorts, as it had planned to when it was in the red tier last fall. In essence, it helps the district try to get back to where it was aiming to be last semester.

"That's what we're trying to get to as a starting point," Schaefer said.

This means bringing back vulnerable groups such as students with disabilities, English learners, foster youth and those experiencing homelessness, all of which are allowed in the purple tier. But it also means being able to bring in students who take classes at the CTEC/ROC centers, who do hands-on training, which it had also begun to do.

Schaefer said the district would also like to bring back at-risk students, such as seniors who are in danger of not graduating and struggling freshmen. He did warn that this takes time, and the state just informed schools on Friday that they can apply for the measure.

"This is a process," he said.

The public comment at Wednesday's special board meeting lasted a full half-hour with parents demanding the high schools come up with an immediate plan to reopen and for sports to return as it has elsewhere in the country or in California private schools.

A typical comment was one from Kevin Morrison, a teacher at Shafter High as well as the parent of student, who wrote in to advocate for opening campuses.

"As teachers and parents, we are tired of games, we are tired of looking down at high horses, waiting for calls to be made," he wrote. "If you want to save kids, stop the dance. Stop the wait for a higher authority to tell you what to do. Make the decision to save these kids' lives."

Board members seemed frustrated by the parents who seemed to think the board is preventing the opening of schools.

High school districts who didn't open a full grade while the county was in the red tier cannot reopen until the county returns to the red tier. For KHSD to have opened an entire grade would have meant bringing back roughly 10,000 students to campuses — a tall order during the three weeks the county was in the red tier last fall.

"To be clear, the board desires to open school to the largest extent possible as soon as it's legally allowed to," said trustee Bryan Batey.

Trustee Jeff Flores said the board is advocating through every possible avenue they can, including local legislators, the Kern County Superintendent of Schools and the California School Board Association.

"Every angle is being pressed, we assure you," Flores said.

The board did take some time to respond to some of the commenters, urging them to direct their anger at other agencies that would allow the high school district to open more quickly. 

"People writing in are under the misconception that there's been no plan," Batey said. He asked Schaefer how many plans the school district had come up with since the pandemic began in response to changing guidance. Had it been 20? 

"At least 20," Schaefer responded.

Schaefer did a presentation that explained how state guidance had changed and how the district had responded. He joked the guidance feels like it moves on a daily basis.

Flores pointed out that KHSD isn't able to open the same way as a school in Texas or even a private school in town, simply because of state regulations.

"Private schools are allowed a waiver to get back to school," Flores said. "We don’t have that luxury."

During the meeting, the board also passed a formal agreement with Kern Medical Center to handle staff vaccinations. Once the staff at schools are approved to receive the vaccine, Kern High School District staff will be able to receive vaccines at the facilities. 

The district's new employee medical center should be open in March, but it will not immediately have the equipment to store the vaccines on site and administer them right away.