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UPDATED: Kern County's three biggest school districts saw academic performances take hit during distance learning period

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Students exit school buses at Golden Valley High School in this 2019 file photo.

The school year unlike any other has resulted in report cards unlike any other. Students are coming home with fewer As, Bs and Cs and a lot more Ds and Fs compared to last year.

That’s been true across the country and state — in schools where they’re still giving grades — and it’s true in the three school districts where 45 percent of Kern County students go to school.

The Kern County Superintendent of Schools and administrators from Kern High, Bakersfield City and Panama-Buena Vista Union school districts held a news conference Tuesday to discuss data showing the marked increase in Ds and Fs since the fall semester last year.

In those three districts, 30 percent of students in grades 6th through 12th received a D or F in fall, compared to 16 percent of students at the same time last year. Brandie Dye, assistant superintendent of instructional services at PBVUSD, called those numbers “heartbreaking.”

Kern County Superintendent of Schools Mary Barlow said that 250,000 people in the county — parents, students and educators — have had their lives turned upside down by the pandemic that has forced students to learn remotely from laptops for a few months, or in some cases coming up on a year.

“Our first priority is to get our students back in the classroom where we know we can provide them in-person opportunities where they can thrive,” she said.

The numbers were much worse for certain groups, such as English language learners, socioeconomically disadvantaged, students with disabilities and English language learners who are socioeconomically disadvantaged. The numbers were the worst for English language learners: 44 percent of these students received a D or F last semester compared to 25 percent last year, according to numbers provided by the KCSOS. In KHSD, 51 percent of these students received a D or F.

Administrators pointed out that many aspects of COVID-19 and distance learning made it tough to focus on school. Some of these students were hit hard by basic connectivity problems, especially in the early part of the semester.

They might be trying to do their school work in situations where it is hard to focus. Older students might be taking on the job of watching and caring for their younger family members. Younger students might be fending for themselves. They’re taking on the emotional or sometimes even financial burdens of their families.

Barlow pointed out that 30 percent of students in the county live in poverty. Dye said in some ways she’s amazed by how well students are doing.

“Our students are surviving a pandemic, and the fact that they are doing as well as they are doing in this crisis speaks to the perseverance of our students,” she said.

“It’s not only academics that are behind those Ds and Fs,” said Brenda Lewis, associate superintendent of instruction for Kern High School District. “There’s a lot of life there, too.”

Lewis said that many of the students in struggling groups were targeted to return to school for in-person learning in fall, but those groups weren’t back on campus long before rising COVID-19 rates shuttered KHSD and most campuses in the county.

But the district has been targeting struggling students in other ways. Lewis said with every student who is struggling they try to find out why and work with them to overcome the barrier whether it’s through a counselor, intervention groups or tutoring.

Administrators said they are trying to change the way that educators think about grades this year and there’s a focus on equity.

Administrators say they are making a shift so that grades reflect a student’s understanding, not the ability to complete work. That means students aren’t being penalized for late or incomplete assignments the same way they would when they had a full day to complete an assignment in a classroom. If a student isn’t able to type, they can talk to the teacher.

“We don’t know what’s going on in the home environment,” said Dye.

All of the school districts are looking toward the future with summer school programs to help students with what they might have struggled with in fall. PBVUSD said it’s planning Camp STEAM, BCSD has a robust summer program and KHSD is planning on a bigger program than usual as well.

But for high school students, grades can carry more weight for college and other endeavors. With that said, fall grades aren’t a done deal this year.

“We’re not just looking at the first semester as a closed book,” Lewis said. “We’re looking at the year in its totality.”

BCSD’s deputy superintendent Mark Luque said this year had fewer instructional minutes in the academic day. That’s been tough for English learners, one of the hardest hit groups, who need every possible opportunity to read and write so they can practice their language skills. He said the district is increasing small group instruction to improve this.

Ultimately, he and the other administrators pointed out that a lot of what students have missed out on won’t be fixed quickly, but that it is important to address the “whole child”: their social and emotional needs, as well as their academic ones.

“What’s been lost wiIl not be overcome in one cycle of learning. It's going to take semesters, years to put together plans to support these kids,” Luque said. “But ultimately as a community of Bakersfield, we’re all confronting a reality that this is not simply an A-F issue, this is a life issue.”