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Panama-Buena Vista announces plan to open its junior highs, anticipating county's drop into the red tier

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The Panama-Buena Vista Union School District office is on Ashe Road.

Declining COVID-19 rates in Kern County have given the administration of Panama-Buena Vista Union School District, the county’s second-largest elementary district, the confidence to tentatively name dates for its junior high students to return to campus.

The district has tentatively scheduled campuses to open to seventh graders on March 22 and eighth graders on April 6.

The plan is contingent on case rates in Kern County falling from the more-restrictive purple tier into the less-restrictive red tier. Whether Kern County dips into that tier indicating the virus is less widespread is expected to be announced by the state today.

This would make the southwest Bakersfield district with its approximately 18,500 students the largest elementary district in the county to bring back its seventh and eighth grade students.

The idea of returning seventh graders to campus the Monday before spring break is to give them some time to acquaint themselves with their new school, according to PBVUSD Superintendent Katie Russell.

“It would give them an opportunity to be on that campus and kind of learn the ins and outs of being on a campus they’ve never been on before,” she told her board last week.

For school districts like PBVUSD that had not yet fully opened their campuses to students in the fall, they have been required to wait for coronavirus rates to fall to the red tier to open campuses to grades seventh through 12th. Other campuses that did open were small enough to be granted waivers, such as many private or rural schools, or they opened during the few weeks of October that Kern County was in the red tier, such as Rosedale Union School District.

Last Tuesday state officials announced the county’s adjusted daily new case rate per 100,000 residents was 11.8, and the county would remain in purple. Because California has vaccinated more than 2 million residents in its health equity metric, counties can enter the red tier when the adjusted daily case rate falls below 10.

But new legislation recently signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom has created incentives — to the tune of $2 billion statewide — for schools that open for in-person learning. Russell said this reopening helps the district to stay on track for taking advantage of the funding. Districts who delay their opening will lose out.

Opening up junior high and high school campuses in the era of COVID tends to be a more complex process than elementary schools for a variety of reasons. Students have several classes, which can radically increase the number of potential exposures. Older students, who tend to live farther from their schools, are more reliant on buses, which have seen capacity diminish under COVID guidelines.

That’s true at PBVUSD, where busing is only available for special education students whose learning plan requires it.

PBVUSD is relying on what is known as an A/B model. Its junior high students will attend their six classes at school two days a week. There will be one group that attends on Monday and Thursday, and another that attends on Tuesday and Friday. Wednesday is a set day for everyone to remain in distance learning.

Everyone, whether they’re learning remotely or in school, will be learning together as a class on the same days. Teachers will be teaching students in their classrooms and those online at the same time, according to Jennifer Irvin, the district’s assistant superintendent.

The opening of junior highs will also bring with it the opportunity for more COVID-19 testing. On Wednesdays, asymptomatic students — not those who believe they might be infected or have had contact with someone infected — who are interested can get tested at the district’s junior highs.

Irvin said that the district has put in a variety of safety protocols for those who plan to return to campus and said everyone is looking forward to opening those campuses again.

“We cannot be more excited to have our kids,” she said.