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State promised independent study for those wary of COVID, but its rollout in schools has been uneven

Cecilia Delgado's choices as a parent haven't been easy this school year. Her daughter couldn't bear another year of distance learning, so she returned to Bakersfield High School. Her son, an eighth-grader at Sequoia Middle School, felt completely the opposite.

"My son begged me not to make him go back," Delgado said.

She worried about both. Would sending her daughter to school put her at risk with rising COVID rates? And would her son be missing out on in-person learning if he stayed at home?

Ultimately, Delgado decided to sign him up for the Bakersfield City School District's independent study program, which will allow him to continue his schooling from home.

She worried about her son, a frequent visitor to the school's wellness center before the pandemic. The thought of risking infection was especially unbearable to him after the way he's seen COVID impact his family. He lost his grandfather to the virus last August, and his dad is a long-hauler still dealing with symptoms from his illness in November. 

This school year was supposed to mark a grand return to campus for K-12 students in California. Even as most schools opened in spring, many students remained in distance learning or on a hybrid schedule. Over summer, the law that made those options possible expired.

In its place, the Legislature created an alternative to in-person schooling in AB 130 for parents worried about their children's health. It built on the state's current independent study requirements for students who couldn't go to school for some reason, like an extended illness, a long vacation or child stardom.

The law marked a big shift from last year's distance learning routine. It has also created major challenges for parents, teachers and administrators in Kern County during a season of rising COVID rates.

The new independent study requirements offer more rigor than traditional independent study, but also vastly less structure than the virtual learning parents became accustomed to last year.

A LATE START

Crucially, the requirements were rolled out in July. Local school district administrators had to scramble to build a new program with just weeks' notice.

"It is a part of the new school year that districts had very little time to figure out," wrote Robert Meszaros, spokesman for the Kern County Superintendent of Schools. "The budget trailer bill language was released in early July, so only about six weeks before the start of the school year for most districts. Even less time for those that started earlier."

Schools in California no longer have the option to shut down and move into distance learning when local case rates are high. Independent study is the one lever parents can pull when they no longer feel like schools are safe.

Administrators are planning for a year unlike any other where they expect to reshuffle their staff in response to waxing and waning COVID rates.

BCSD has already had to do this. In just the two days before school began, the district signed up 1,001 of its students for the program it calls course-based independent study. The program currently has 1,300 students. The district had six teachers volunteer to teach those students, which left them searching for about 60 more.

"It was like reopening a brand-new school," said Laura Orozco, assistant superintendent of educational services.

PARENTS IN THE DARK

Meanwhile, parents this year said they felt in the dark about what the independent study programs would look like. They worried it would lack the rigor of last year's virtual options.

Taryn Miller reluctantly decided to send her children for in-person learning at Sing Lum in the Panama-Buena Vista Union School District because the independent study option didn't seem to offer enough daily engagement. It wasn't until the week before school started that she learned that the district was offering students an option that looked more like last year's daily virtual instruction.

"If I would have known that distance learning, like what was offered last school year, was being offered, I would have likely pursued that option," she said.

Now Miller wants to pull her children out of in-person learning, as COVID rates are rising and more students are going home sick at her children's school. 

She's far from alone. Independent study has become even more popular since school started. BCSD has had an additional 100 students sign up since Tuesday. Kern High School District had 29 students sign up on just one day last week. Some districts, like Lamont Elementary, have created waitlists for their programs.

But confusion remains even for those parents who already took the plunge. On Friday morning, Delgado's son had yet to be assigned a teacher. He completed his assignment packet, but he had no idea what he was supposed to work on next. 

"I do feel lost, because I didn’t expect this," Delgado said.

GETTING A HANDLE ON PROGRAMS

More information was on its way. Teachers received their class lists on Friday, so they could begin connecting with students and preparing for their classes, which were set to begin Monday, according to Tim Fulenwider, executive director of BCSD's instructional support services division.

The district reassigned many of the 66 teachers needed to teach course-based independent study. Those teachers began the year in a classroom of students, and then the district told them their students would be sent to other classrooms.

"After a week with their students, it’s a bitter pill for a lot of them to swallow," said Steven Comstock, president of the Bakersfield Elementary Teachers Association.

Comstock said his members wished there had been more planning and more incentives, such as working from home or stipends, to lure more teachers into independent study. He said it could have avoided so many last-minute reassignments that have been painful for teachers and their students.

"To them, it feels last-minute and rushed, but we are trying to meet the needs of families," said Fulenwider.

BCSD administrators said calculating staffing this year has been a high-wire act. In a typical year, districts will look at enrollment and decide whether their staffing levels are appropriate. Usually, the numbers aren't so wildly out of whack, but this wasn't a typical year; enrollment was low and demand for independent study was high.

BCSD didn't want to shut the door on students as other districts have. It also wanted to offer more than the minimum requirements of daily instruction. Orozco said the district's course-based independent study is a robust program that will mirror the minutes of an in-person classroom.

The Kern High School District has had one major benefit going for it that most elementary school districts didn't. Even before the pandemic, it already offered independent study with a curriculum on Canvas called Kern Learn, according to Dean McGee, KHSD's associate superintendent of educational services and innovative programs.

When the district got wind that it would be required to offer independent study, it expanded its offerings into a program called Kern Learn Extension. The district started pushing the program on Aug. 4 and interest has been steady since then. As of last week, the district had 829 requests for the program.

McGee said the program should be easy to scale up or down — crucial during a pandemic. It relies on teachers volunteering to teach Kern Learn Extension students during their prep period for extra pay. Should there be an influx of students into the program, the district is banking on the teachers losing in-person students taking on a virtual class.

SMALL DISTRICTS STRUGGLE

Larger districts have the benefit of scale, but Buttonwillow School District Superintendent Stuart Packard said his 355-student district runs on tight margins.

"There’s hardly enough staff to do all the other things we need to do for COVID," he said.

Packard feels hamstrung by the state's push for in-person learning. Right now, the district has just two students in the same grade level who have opted for independent study. If cases rise, he'd rather switch to virtual learning than have to figure out how to rearrange his staff. 

Some parents have been frustrated by the state's push for in-person learning, too. Several parents at a town hall held by Lamont Elementary School District asked that their schools be moved into a virtual or hybrid schedule after a number of people tested positive at their schools. The superintendent said this year that just wasn't possible.

Packard called the push for in-person learning "political." The guidelines for the year were written in a way that assumed COVID cases would remain down, not that students and staff would begin the year in quarantine, he said. Now schools are in the tough position of putting those guidelines, like independent study, into place.

"The only thing that we can do is be prepared and flexible," he said.

You can reach Emma Gallegos at 661-395-7394.