Early this month, the state announced it would allow school districts, even in counties like Kern that are on the most restricted tier for COVID-19, to bring back key groups of students for in-person learning. This week, the boards of two school districts, Arvin Union and Fruitvale, passed plans to bring back some of the students they say have the most to lose in a distance learning environment.
This week, Arvin Union started bringing back young English language learners to be tested in person, and Fruitvale School District plans to bring in small groups of special needs students starting Monday.
“We have an advantage because we are so small,” said Fruitvale Superintendent Leslie Garrison. “We are able to bring cohorts back pretty easily.”
The state allows school districts to bring back certain groups of students for in-person learning, even when their COVID-19 case and test rates put them in the most restrictive “purple tier” as is the case in Kern. Districts don’t need approval from local public health departments, though many have reached out to Kern County public health officials for guidance as they craft their plans.
State guidance is very strict. Any students back on campus should stay in small groups, or “cohorts,” of no more than 16 adults or students that never change. The students chosen to come back for in-person learning are those who have the most to lose in distance learning: Students with disabilities or who require special services, English learners, and also "students at risk of abuse or neglect, foster youth and students experiencing homelessness."
Fruitvale’s school board passed a plan to bring back special education students. The first group of students who are set to come back to campus Monday will be those who have the highest needs: K-8 students who are designated "moderate-severe." There will be 17 students altogether divided into three cohorts — one at Fruitvale Junior High School and two at Columbia Elementary School.
These are often the most difficult students to teach over Zoom, educators say. They may have mobility issues or require educational services that are nearly impossible over distance, like occupational therapy.
Each cohort, even the ones on the same campus, has its own buses, its own separate play yard and its own dedicated staff members. Speech, behavioral health or occupational therapists will only work with one cohort. Even substitutes need to be trained and ready to work with the same group of students, in case an aide is unable to work.
The Fruitvale board also passed plans to work with a larger group of special education students who are designated mild-moderate, as well as students who may need other in-person services, like speech therapy, counseling and specialized testing, including English language testing. For now, the district doesn’t have any set dates for those groups and is focused on its first small, high-need group.
“We’re putting our toes in the water and we’re making sure we’re doing this well,” Garrison said.
Garrison said that this plan required input and planning from special education teachers, the labor union and parents. Everyone participating in the in-person plan is doing so willingly, she said, and they're eager to return. Some families made the decision to continue with distance learning, and she said families are welcome to return to it at any time. But she said the families that are coming back are eager.
“They’re grateful that we advocated for them and wanted them back,” Garrison said.
Arvin Union School District has already begun bringing kindergarten students who are English learners in person to test them, according to Superintendent Georgia Rhett. The need was urgent: two staff members are tasked with testing 140 kindergarten students.
She said assessing young students can be really difficult over a computer, especially those who haven’t been in the school system yet. And sometimes parents will interfere with the test, too.
“There’s nothing that beats in-person experience,” Rhett said. “We want to be able to check their facial expressions.”
The district has a testing site off campus with very strict procedures that include temperature checks, regular sanitation between tests and limiting the number of people who are allowed to show up to the appointment.
Rhett says they’re working on plans to bring back small cohorts for special education. Other districts are also still in the planning stages.
Rosedale Superintendent Sue Lemon said her district hopes to welcome small cohorts back Oct. 1.
“We are currently in the planning stage to bring back small cohorts under the state guidance,” she wrote in an email.
Some districts have notified their boards about the guidance that they’ve received from the state or even plans they've begun to craft.
At this week’s Kern High School District board meeting, Assistant Superintendent Dean McGee told trustees the district would be presenting a plan at their Oct. 5 meeting to bring back small cohorts if the district isn’t able to resume in-person instruction by the next grading period.
“I think I can speak for the whole board: We are excited about the potential to return in-person learning for our most at-risk kids,” said KHSD board president J. Bryan Batey. “I think also I can speak for the board to say that we’re equally excited to avoid instructional loss for all of our kids. We look forward to that day as well.”
“Would that be wonderful?” trustee Janice Graves added.
Panama Buena-Vista Union School District is planning to bring a small group of students designated moderate-severe back to Whitley Elementary, said Jennifer Irvin, assistant superintendent of educational services. The plan is to phase in students gradually, and learn from each group of students brought back to campus.
"We’ll start with the first cohort and we’ll learn from that, and then we’ll plan the next one," Irvin said.
A date hasn't been set for this first group of students, but the district made a presentation to the board and is finalizing plans, which include details like making a "traffic plan" to make sure that separate cohorts of students never cross on campus.
Norris School District administration presented its board a plan to bring back special education students. The plan was also aimed at bringing back the most vulnerable students. There would be 15 students K-8 in moderate/severe special day classes split into two cohorts on two campuses. Fifty-two students K-6 in the mild/moderate special day classes would be split into five cohorts on two campuses. There would also be a third group of 20 students, 7-8, who would be split into two cohorts on one campus.
No action was taken by the board, though administrators suggested that the district could be ready to enact this plan as soon as the end of the quarter, which is the second week of October.
“That’s kind of exciting, right? That we can actually have students on campus and they are our most vulnerable and they need it the most,” said Norris trustee Amanda Frank. “The thought that we can actually help them — it makes my heart kind of happy.”