School starts on Monday for most students in Kern County, but children in the early grades through high school will start the school year online, distance learning from home.
That presents a number of challenges for parents, students and educators who are getting a crash course in how to make the best of a difficult situation.
It is also presenting challenges to school districts that want to continue providing free and reduced meal programs to thousands of students learning at home, many who may have parents out of work as a result of the pandemic.
"Right now we're hoping (USDA) Secretary Sonny Perdue will extend a waiver to allow us to feed all children for free," said Jennifer Davis, director of nutrition services for the Kern High School District.
As it stands now, Davis said, some students will receive meals for free and some will have to pay, which makes it more difficult to distribute thousands of meals in school parking lots in 100-degree heat while trying to maintain social distancing.
Starting Friday, KHSD will distribute meals to high school students at each of its 19 comprehensive campuses. But this time, the food distribution is scheduled from 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Fridays only.
Cutting the distribution to twice a week, Davis said, was done to make it less expensive and more convenient for parents and students. At the same time it should reduce the potential for further spread of the virus.
Students must be present at the point of distribution, Davis said.
"Just drive up to a canopy with a table and show your ID," she said. Workers wearing masks and gloves will place the bagged meals on a metal serving tray or pan and slide it toward the recipient in a "touchless" exchange.
"Then they sanitize the pan," she said, before the next car pulls up.
The drive-through distribution will begin on Friday, the district said in a news release.
"We're doing it a little different than we did it in the spring," said Erin Briscoe-Clarke, a spokeswoman for the district.
According to Briscoe-Clarke, because the USDA had provided waivers meant to help streamline the process, any child, ages 2 to 18, could benefit from the meal program.
During the summer, as COVID-19 infections rose sharply in Kern County and other locations, most families could pick up meals from the closest school site without showing school ID or proving they were low-income. But that waiver has expired, making food distribution during the pandemic more difficult and confusing for families.
"People don't understand why we have to charge them," Davis said.
But that could change.
School systems, the nonprofit School Nutrition Association and some U.S. senators are calling for an extension of COVID-19 waivers allowing for universal free meals.
In the meantime the high school district has two federally funded meal programs, determined by what school site the student attends.
Students attending Community Eligibility Provision schools — which includes most of the district's sites — will see no charge for meals.
These include Arvin High; Bakersfield High; East Bakersfield; Foothill; Golden Valley; Highland; Independence; Kern Valley; Mira Monte; North; Ridgeview; Shafter High; South; West; and Nueva Continuation.
On Tuesdays, these sites will distribute breakfast, lunch, snack, and dinner for Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. On Friday, these sites will distribute breakfast, lunch, snack, and dinner for Monday and Tuesday.
That means students will receive 12 meals on Tuesdays and eight meals on Fridays. All entrees are frozen.
The remaining four schools — Centennial, Frontier, Liberty and Stockdale — are governed by the National School Lunch Program. Students at these schools may receive meals for free, at a reduced charge, or a full charge, according to the news release.
On Tuesdays, these sites will distribute breakfast, lunch, and a snack for Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. On Friday, they will hand out breakfast, lunch, and snack, for Monday and Tuesday.
According to Tabatha Mills, spokeswoman for the Bakersfield City School District, meal distribution will begin Monday, and is scheduled from 11:45 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Students should pick up meals at their school sites. Rafer Johnson School will not distribute meals.