This week Panama-Buena Vista Union School District announced a plan to open all its elementary school campuses for in-person learning in March.
In the fall, the campus had begun to slowly bring back small groups of vulnerable students but, like most schools in Kern County, it shut its campuses to students entirely when local COVID-19 case rates surged.
Superintendent Katie Russell announced the district plan at Tuesday's board meeting. The plan is to bring back those vulnerable students all at once on Feb. 25. But the district plans to go further and completely open its elementary campuses to general education students over the course of March.
"We want to be able to provide some dates to our families," Russell told the board. "They are tentative based on the numbers but we want to get those out so people can start preparing, and that includes staff as well as parents in preparation."
The plan comes at a time when many parents throughout Kern County are clamoring to send their children back to in-person learning. Panama-Buena Vista's return would make it the largest district to announce such plans so far.
Russell said the district's proposal is buoyed by recent state guidance that allows elementary schools to open when there are fewer than 25 new cases a day per 100,000 residents. Kern County's rates have been steadily falling each week. On Tuesday, it was at 35 new cases.
The proposal is for transitional kindergarten and kindergarten students to arrive March 4 and for a new group to arrive each Thursday until all elementary students whose families prefer in-person instruction are back on campus March 18.
There is no set date for general education students in junior high to return, except for some additional small cohorts. Russell said the district is waiting for coronavirus numbers to trend down to the red tier.
She did caution state guidance could change and that district plans are contingent on local COVID-19 rates, but she said it was important for the district to move forward.
"Even though the Legislature has not approved the plans, we did not want to wait for that," Russell said. "We wanted to be aggressive and get the plan ready and have it on the website."
The district is still planning its instructional schedule and getting feedback from families and other stakeholders, Russell said. The goal is to have all of TK through 6th grade on the same schedule. The district is surveying families, who can attend listening posts over ZOOM to offer feedback on the district's plans on Feb. 17 and 18.
Special education students will receive busing, but transportation will not be available for other students.
Trustee J.P. Lake said he hopes the district staff impresses on families that logistics are why some of the schedules might seem so complicated. He gives the example of a class that is half at home and half online.
"Many of our teachers are going to have to teach a group of kids sitting in front of them and also have a group of kids sitting online in Zoom," Lake said. "That's a really challenging scenario for a teacher."
He pressed Russell to explain why cohorts of vulnerable students couldn't come back sooner or why general education students couldn't all come back on one date once the state allows it.
Russell said that window gives teachers time to plan for their students' return. And spacing out each wave of returning grade levels by a week also helps classified staff.
Once students return to the classroom, teachers are required to return as well, Russell said. But some teachers, depending on how many students remain in distance learning, may continue to teach remotely.
Testing and vaccinations
A new part of life on campus will be the increased availability of surveillance testing. Guidance from the state in the fall suggested asymptomatic COVID testing of the entire staff every two months. But new guidance calls for increased testing of teachers and even students when local case rates are high.
PBVUSD is heading that direction by making it available, though not requiring it. On Feb. 16, the district will make free testing available to staff at its junior highs and district office every Tuesday through Thursday, according to Jennifer Irvin, assistant superintendent of educational services. The tests will be sent to the Valencia Branch Laboratory, which the state opened to increase testing capacity for schools and workers in other crucial settings.
The district surveyed staff, and of those who responded, 37 percent said they would be interested in participating in testing, 33.4 percent said no and 29.4 percent said maybe.
Russell also said that testing will be available to students when they return.
The district offered information about plans to vaccinate its staff against COVID-19. Irvin said the district is partnering with Express Pharmacy to vaccinate once educators are eligible under state guidelines. The district plans to hold two Saturday clinics that will be staffed by district nurses and Express Pharmacy staff. During each clinic, 400 staff members should be able to receive vaccinations. There will be subsequent vaccine clinics available at junior highs.
Staff who work on campus and special education teachers will be given priority.
A survey found 47.1 percent of staff is interested in the vaccine, 30.9 percent said they weren't and 22.1 percent said maybe.