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KHSD unveils plan to bring seniors back on campus in April

Kern High School District administrators are hoping falling rates of COVID-19 in the community mean that high school seniors can come on campus to enjoy the final days of their school year.

The plan doesn't sound like senior years of the past — no dances, no rallies or other senior year touchstones — but it won't be like last spring when high schools were emptied out.

The goal is to bring back seniors for their classes on April 12, the second week of the fourth quarter. The plan isn't a done deal, and as with anything in the post-COVID era, there are plenty of contingencies. But KHSD administrators shared the plan that they've put together with the board on Monday night. It's awaiting approval from the state, which they expect on March 8.

One of those contingencies is that COVID-19 case rates continue to fall in Kern and that the county can eventually head into the red tier. Current state guidance won't allow high schools to open up beyond vulnerable groups until case rates are there. But new state guidance also makes school funding contingent on districts opening up an entire grade level.

On Tuesday, the county announced that it continues heading in the right direction: the case rate has fallen to an adjusted rate of 13.3 per 100,000 residents per day. That's not quite in at the red tier threshold, which is at 7 cases per 100,000 residents, but the numbers have been steadily dropping.

Though bringing seniors back is just one part of the broader plan unveiled Monday night, it was the only part that hadn't been discussed until now.

The goal is to first bring on other cohorts, now called stable groups, of students who had already returned in fall for in-person learning: students who are in special education, homeless and foster youth, English learners and those who are in the career technical education program. The plan is to phase in these groups beginning March 15.

Assistant Superintendent Dean McGee told the board that principals are currently talking to staff and parents to see which students might be interested in returning for these phases.

The plan also touches on future plans beyond this school year, which has been touched on in previous meetings. The goal is to offer sections of in-person summer school for all grade levels as well as distance learning.

"We're going to offer more than we ever have in the past," McGee said.

Next fall, the district plans to return all grades to in-person learning while continuing to offer distance learning through independent study.

McGee said that bringing just one grade back this year will require almost the entire staff back on campus with the exception of those teachers who do not teach senior classes.

He said bringing back just one grade in the 42,000-student district will be a big undertaking, and it's a much harder task than bringing back elementary students. When a student tests positive for COVID-19, it will put all six classes in quarantine.

"We know the inherent risk in bringing our students back," he said. "We believe it is the right thing to do."

Seniors who return to campus will receive live instruction from their teachers in classes at the senior level, such as government or English. But if they are taking a class with other grade levels, they will attend the class in a distance learning lab on campus.

Trustee Cynthia Brakeman wanted to make sure that as exciting as it may sound for seniors to return to campus, that the public's expectations were clear about what the proposal entailed.

"I think there are parents out there and students out there who think as a senior 'I'm going to come back and it's going to be a regular year,' and that's not what we're proposing," she said. 

Trustee Bryan Batey encouraged the public to get their vaccines when they can and continue to social distance, so that the high schools can open.

KHSD Superintendent Bryon Schaefer also shared an update about the district's employees: 2,000 have signed up to receive their first vaccinations by this Saturday. Some of the 5,000 employees are receiving vaccinations through Kern Medical and others through the teachers union.

"Our teachers are actively prepared to return to the classroom," Schaefer said.