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Schools are allowed to stay open when COVID-19 surges, but have trouble staffing them

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Custodian Jim Williams disinfects a room before students arrive for an afternoon session at Freedom Middle School in this November file photo. The middle school in Rosedale Union School District was only able to remain open for just over a week because of staffing issues related to COVID-19.

Rosedale Union School District is the biggest district in Kern County that brought general education students of all grade levels onto campus this fall. It has vocal support from its families, administration and board to bring students on campus as quickly as possible.

So the moment the district could, it welcomed students to campuses in person. The gradual rollout over the last six weeks was completed last week when the oldest students returned.

But it didn't last long.

Freedom Middle School closed its campus Thursday, a little over a week after opening, and the rest of the school district will switch back to distance learning next week.

The culprit? Staffing, said Superintendent Sue Lemon.

"It started to snowball," Lemon said. "I saw the dominoes falling."

Lemon said the number of staff members quarantining at home because of COVID-19 exposures began to add up quickly. In one case, a staff member was out 24 days because they were quarantining with someone else.

Rosedale is far from alone. Under state guidelines, school campuses are allowed to stay open, as long as they had approval to open through the county waiver process or they opened while case rates were lower when Kern County was in the red tier.

But as cases have surged in Kern County over the last month, more than a dozen schools and school districts all over the county — small, large, rural, suburban, public or private — have closed their campuses to students. All have cited the surge of local COVID-19 cases, but several cited staffing as the breaking point. 

A school in California must close when 5 percent of the people on campus test positive for coronavirus, and a district must close when 25 percent of its schools are closed. But to date only one district — Lamont School District — was mandated to close when one of its four schools hit that 5 percent trigger, according to the Kern County Public Health Services Department. Horace Mann Elementary was the other state-mandated closure in the county, but Bakersfield City School District closed its campuses voluntarily — just like all the other schools or school districts in the county.

Lemon expected that some classes in Rosedale Union would move into quarantine because of exposures during the pandemic, but she didn't expect to run out of staff so quickly.

Staffing a middle school is especially tricky, she said. Students at Freedom Middle School stay with a cohort of students all day, but they change teachers. So when one individual who interacted with that cohort tested positive for COVID-19, the entire cohort — and all six teachers — had to go into quarantine. The school got creative and had teachers continue teaching their in-person classes from home through a screen while another adult proctored the class. But then another positive COVID-19 test took out another cohort — and another six teachers.

Administrators stress that closures weren't just about teachers. It's impossible to keep a campus safely running without bus drivers to bring students, the custodians who keep the campus sanitized and the nutrition workers who serve meals.

"There are many cogs in the entire wheel," said Jennifer Hedge, superintendent of Rio Bravo-Greeley Union School District.

The small district in the far northwest had brought students back in a cohort model, but Hedge said, as much as everyone wanted students back, it was difficult logistically when there were so many classrooms and departments impacted by quarantines.

And it's not just districts like Rosedale Union and Rio Bravo-Greeley Union that attempted to bring back their entire student body that have struggled to staff their campuses.

Panama Buena-Vista Union School District has, to date, not brought back any K-8 general education students. Instead it has focused on returning small groups of students with special needs. But even with those smaller groups on campus, it has been a struggle.

As is the case with other districts, staff will wear many hats just to make sure all crucial positions are covered. 

"We all work together to make it happen," said Jennifer Irvin, assistant superintendent of educational services in the district. "Sometimes if a principal is out, we will bring a (vice principal) from another site. It’s a very strategic thing."

Even in good times, finding substitutes for bus drivers is always tricky. Irvin said that mechanics or others who work in the transportation department may be called in to drive a bus if they have the proper license. But that has been especially difficult to navigate.

But what districts have been finding is these tactics to cover their bases can only go so far with the number of staffers out. And the substitute pool is shallow.

It wasn't ever particularly easy to find substitute teachers in Kern County, but there are fewer now. Last April, there were 2,430 people on the eligibility list, according to Kern County Superintendent of Schools spokesman Robert Meszaros. It shrunk to 1,268 in August and has only gone up to 1,323 in November as some districts have begun training and using more substitutes.

"Under typical conditions, our substitute pools are sufficient, however, we reached a point that our substitutes as well as shifting of staff and duties could not accommodate our high safety standards and protocols districtwide," Tehachapi Unified School District Superintendent Stacey Larson-Everson wrote in an email.

Irvin said that bringing on substitutes takes more effort now — they don't just need to train them but also give them a login for virtual classrooms. She said some substitutes have said they don't feel comfortable returning to campus. Lemon said some substitutes are parents who are at home with their own children.

Some of the districts who are closing before this week are taking a wait-and-see approach after break, such as Kern High School District. Norris School District says it will return a week after break. Rosedale has said it hopes to return soon after. 

"We want everyone to stay safe and we want to get back to educating students," Lemon said.

Administrators acknowledge the back-and-forth scheduling has been stressful for parents, though they say they've been understanding.

Angela Hanson, the parent of students in Rosedale Union, said the experience of distance learning was full of stress and tears, so she was relieved that they would finally be able to return to school in person. She said she doesn't blame the district for having to close in-person learning again, and she knows that they're doing all they can.

"Our kids just started back last week, and it’s over already," she said. "It’s heartbreaking."