The Panama-Buena Vista Union School District board of education approved a plan to begin the 2020-21 school year through distance learning and a closure plan for when students return to school during Tuesday's meeting.
The board also approved delaying the first day of school from Aug. 12 to Aug. 24. The district will make up those days over the year.
Other components to the vote included having teachers and staff report to school sites or designated work assignments; having the distance learning schedule remain in place through the end of the first grading period, Oct. 16, or sooner if county COVID-19 numbers decrease and the county is no longer on a watchlist; and having a phased reopening when it is safe for students to return to campus. Trustees also voted to have staff members develop a plan for allowing transitional kindergarten and kindergarten students to meet their teachers in the beginning of the school year in a safe manner.
At last month's board meeting, trustees were planning on giving parents a choice between sending students back to school five days a week with safety guidelines or utilizing distance learning.
However, much has changed since then.
"The Kern County numbers are astronomically going through the roof," said Superintendent Kevin Silberberg, referring to rising COVID-19 cases within the last few days.
Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom also announced public schools can physically open when its county has been off the state's COVID-19 monitoring list for 14 days. Schools that don't meet the requirement must begin the year distance learning. Kern County is currently on the list.
"What happened Friday kind of changed the whole playing field," Silberberg said. "I think what the governor saw was that California was being divided ... All the big districts doing their own thing … and other districts going in a different direction and it was kind of all over the place."
During the eight days that the first day of school is delayed, the district will deploy the learning management system Canvas, new expectations, curriculum and course outlines for online learning.
Daily live interactions between teachers and students are expected to take place with distance learning. Silberberg added about 6,000 devices and 1,000 hotspots are needed for the district.
When students and staff members return to campus, some of the safety plans include staff maintaining 6 feet of distance between each other; symptom checks for staff and students; hand washing; sanitizing and disinfecting classrooms, offices and buses; and protocols for quarantine.
According to a district presentation, a classroom closes with one confirmed case; a school closes at 5 percent or when multiple classrooms are positive; and the district closes when 25 percent of schools are closed within 14 days. If a closure takes place, students would revert to online learning.
Public comments were divided on the issue. Many individuals who wrote in comments said distance learning is not the way to go because children learn better in-person, while other parents and teachers were concerned about exposing themselves and students to potential infection.
"Starting school in-person in the fall will cause teachers and students to die," wrote Faith Bradham. "Online teaching has many problems, but online teaching will not have direct consequences of furthering the global pandemic and causing the deaths of students, teachers and staff."
Trustee JP Lake presented statewide coronavirus numbers and noted there have been no deaths among children ages 0 to 17. He said the best place for students to be is in school.
"More damage is being done by remaining closed and offering online-only," Lake said. "I still believe that (parent) choice is the best policy."
Trustee Elynor Cherie Olgin, however, said distance learning is the best model at this time.
Board members also said they would like to see phased reopenings once it is safe for students to return.
Within the last week, Bakersfield City, Kern High, Fruitvale, Norris, Delano Union and Delano Joint Union High school districts have approved distance learning plans.