The Kern High School District will begin the 2020-2021 school year using a distance learning model.
In a 3-2 vote the board of trustees approved opening the fall semester utilizing distance learning and incrementally moving to a cohort model when it's safe for students to return to school. Trustees J. Bryan Batey and Joey O'Connell opposed the motion.
Distance learning will take place during the first quarter, until at least Oct. 9. If conditions present themselves well at that point, a hybrid model would be implemented, with 25 percent of students returning to campus one day a week.
At last month's board meeting, district officials proposed a hybrid model welcoming one group of students on campus Monday and Tuesday, and a second group of students Thursday and Friday. Students would participate in distance learning three days a week.
However, due to increasing COVID-19 cases since the June 29 meeting, Brenda Lewis, associate superintendent of instruction, said it was necessary to switch to distance learning for the beginning of the school year.
"While we still believe that opening schools in a hybrid model is the appropriate model, we now believe an incremental approach to opening school is warranted," she said.
As expected, public comments were divided on how the district should operate this fall.
Most parents and teachers shared they don't believe it's safe for students to return to campus due to increasing local COVID-19 rates and difficulty ensuring students follow safety guidelines.
Others said quality instruction can be achieved by attending in-person classes, and there were questions concerning every student having access to electronics and internet.
“We learn better when we are physically there with our teachers and not at home. We are able to ask questions, get help right away and engage with other students,” said Frontier High School senior Jenna Billington. “I have made great connections with teachers over the years because of face-to-face interactions that we have daily. Teachers can see if I am frustrated and can help me right away. Through a screen, I feel like I would be lost in the crowd and not get answers right away.”
The Kern High School Teachers Association executive board also recommended beginning the school year operating under a 100 percent distance learning model.
The decision comes after the Bakersfield City School District and Los Angeles and San Diego districts announced fall instruction would be online as well.
When the school year begins Aug. 12, teachers will be teaching online from their classrooms. The distance learning model in place would put students in period schedules they can follow from home, similar to ones they would follow if they were on a school site. Chromebooks will be available, as well as hotspots for internet connectivity.
The learning management system Canvas will be available so teachers can track attendance. When asked by O’Connell how many students engaged with distance learning last semester, Dean McGee, associate superintendent of educational services and innovative programs, said he didn't have a number available because the district couldn't track attendance in the spring.
“If we’re going to have any form of distance learning, I think it’s just imperative that we get results on a weekly, if not daily basis as to how many of our students are actively engaging in the distance learning process,” O’Connell said. “It gives me some pause when I don’t have a standard to look at from last year.”
Unlike the spring semester, letter grades will return this fall, which Lewis said will allow for more accountability for students and teachers to keep up.
When students return to campus in a hybrid model, temperatures will be taken, face coverings will be required, desks will be distanced at least 6 feet apart, meals will be served in a grab-and-go method, transportation will be reduced to 25 percent capacity and frequent cleanings will take place. Students will also likely be utilizing e-books in classes rather than paper textbooks.
Lewis feels confident teachers will be better prepared to take on distance learning this fall compared to the spring because many took advantage of Canvas and other training sessions.
Though board members said they prefer having children in school five days a week, Trustee Jeff Flores said the current environment doesn't seem safe enough to allow for that option.
“This is not going to be easy. This is going to require shared sacrifice from a lot of people — from our parents, teachers, administrators, everybody — but it’s also shared responsibility,” Flores said. “The numbers are going up, the cases are going up on a daily basis … I don’t want to add to the unnecessary scramble to the extent that I can control 40,000 students.”