Kern High School District administrators presented more details about the district’s plan to bring students onto campuses for in-person learning over the next month.

Administrators, during a school board meeting this week, went into detail about their current plan to bring back small cohorts of students who are faring the most poorly under distance learning. But they also made it clear it might be a long time before all students are back on campus — or at least those among the district’s nearly 42,000 students who want to return.

Trustee Joey O’Connell pressed Associate Superintendent Brenda Lewis for a date when all students could return to campus. She said the district’s goal is “to try to bring as many students back to campus as we can and to try to bring back cohorts past Phase 4.”

O’Connell told Lewis: “It just sounds so complicated, and it sounds so far off and it sounds like there’s so much to work through. My heart goes out to all of you trying to work through this.” He added: “It just kind of exemplifies to me how much harder everyone has to work right now to make this happen.”

He said he fears that “we’re a long way from bringing all of the students back to school. And so I am very concerned about that.”

Last Wednesday, the district began bringing small cohorts of students with moderate and severe disabilities on campus for in-person learning. Associate Superintendent Scott Cole said about 200 students districtwide are currently coming to class during this first phase. Monday begins a larger phase during which up to 3,000 students per day could be on campuses.

It begins what administrators are calling both Phase 2 and Phase 3 of returning students to campus. These are small cohorts of students with special needs, including students with mild and moderate disabilities, English learners and foster youth and homeless. Students will return to comprehensive campuses, alternative schools and regional occupational programs.

During Phase 4, the district plans to bring in cohorts of seniors who need help ensuring they graduate as well as struggling freshmen. The district would also look to bring on disengaged students who don’t fall into any of the other criteria. And during this phase scheduled to begin Dec. 1, students in regional occupational programs would go to campuses since the learning they do is so hands-on, Lewis told the school board.

Since the last meeting, Kern County has moved to the red tier, which means there are fewer restrictions. There are fewer restrictions on mixing cohorts than when the county was in the most restrictive purple tier. So now it is possible for students to participate in sports or change classes, but administrators advised caution.

“It creates flexibility, but it creates additional risk,” Assistant Superintendent Dean McGee told the board.

One aspect of the plan that has changed is how many students can be in a cohort — now the only limit is how many students can safely distance in a classroom. With students at desks 6 feet apart, most KHSD classrooms will hold up to 20 students.

McGee points out that California guidance advises closing an entire classroom when one person tests positive for COVID, and an entire school could shut down quickly with a lot of cohort mixing.

“That’s why we’re starting with the small cohorts,” said Deputy Superintendent Scott Cole.

The focus now is on providing targeted instruction to students who are particularly struggling. McGee used the example of many foster youth and homeless students who are not able to access distance learning from home at all. The plan is to bring them into a classroom where they can access distance learning and offer wraparound services when they begin to arrive Monday.

“They’re not being successful,” McGee said. “We get them to the campus, we open up the classroom, we provide the computer, we put a staff member in there to help supervise and we feel that the students stand a greater chance to have support and be successful.”

Cole said another reason for gradually bringing back students is that arranging transportation can be difficult.

“One of the greatest challenges we have right now in bringing back additional cohorts is the fact that our transportation has been reduced,” Cole said.

A bus that would typically hold 56 students can now only hold about 14 under social distancing guidelines. Smaller special education buses can transport about three to six students at a time.

Students are screened before getting on buses. Cole said that already they have not allowed two students to board in the last week; one student had a temperature over 100.4 degrees and another was displaying symptoms of COVID. The students were asked to stay home.

One other major change since the board last met is that schools are starting to bring back students for conditioning. Some cohorts of students in the performing arts, including band and drumline, are also being allowed to return.

Administrators shared details about the district’s COVID safety plan, which is a requirement under state guidelines. Each school has its own plan available on its website, which addresses issues such as staffing, arrivals and drop-offs, meals and communication to families, according to Cole.

Students, staff and any visitors at school are encouraged to monitor their own symptoms, but there are also temperature checks for everyone upon arrival. Face masks are required for everyone, and there are masks available for those who don’t have their own. Face shields are also available to faculty and students.

Cole says they have hired more than 20 new custodians and also added additional substitute custodians. Restrooms and frequently touched surfaces are disinfected throughout the day, and campuses will be disinfected nightly with electrostatic sprayers.

Student desks and staff workstations have wellness shields installed. The district says they are upgrading their filtration systems to MERV 8 or MERV 13 where possible. Lockers aren’t being used. Single-use water bottles are available, as are bottle filling stations for those who bring their own water bottle.

Trustees asked about staff testing. The current state guidance is to test staff every two months, but Cole says they are still looking into different options, including at-home kits.

A copy of the district’s reopening plan can be viewed here https://bit.ly/3l2AvMF.