A handful of Kern County elementary schools have expressed interest in a waiver program to allow on-site instruction as the upcoming school year gets underway, but the chances of approval are slim since local COVID-19 cases are among the highest in the state right now, according to county health officials.
The waiver process, announced by the California Department of Public Health on Monday, describes a series of detailed measures schools must meet in order to be allowed to hold in-person classes on campus. If approved, those schools would be exempted from an order issued by Gov. Gavin Newsom that mandates schools do remote learning only for now in Kern and three dozen other counties hard-hit by the virus.
A major factor at issue for local schools wanting a waiver is the surge of local cases. The state guidance on waivers says at the outset in bold that schools in counties with 14-day case rates of more than 200 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents should not be considered to reopen.
Kern's most recent 14-day case rate is more than double that: 428 per 100,000 residents.
"A school can choose to apply but I think that’s going to be a concern," said Kern County Public Health Services Director Matt Constantine.
The waiver is only available to elementary schools whose students typically struggle more than those in older grades with learning from home. California public health officials have cited current scientific evidence to show that students up to sixth grade have lower COVID-19 transmission rates between children and from children to adults to justify the waiver program. The risk of infection and serious illness in this age group is also low, the state agency has said.
Inquiries about the waiver program came from about 20 private schools and one public school, McKittrick Elementary School, in western Kern County, according to Kern County public health officials.
McKittrick, with a population of about 250, has had no reported cases of COVID-19, according to county data.
Its school has about 70 students, according to Superintendent/Principal Barry Koerner, and class sizes are typically about 16 students, while kindergarten classrooms have about eight children. The smaller class sizes would allow for easier social distancing to take place, Koerner said.
The district is preparing paperwork for the waiver once Kern County falls below 200 virus cases per 100,000 residents.
In-person instruction would help families who don’t have strong internet connectivity or have no access at all, and those who struggle with online learning, Koerner said. It also gives teachers a chance to better check in on students, he said.
“We’re such a small district and we’re in a small school that everyone is like family,” said Koerner. “You’re concerned about the kids who are in certain situations and you prefer to be checking on them daily face-to-face instead of through the computer.”
Robert Meszaros, spokesman for the Kern County Superintendent of Schools Office, which works with the county's public schools, said his office doesn't believe schools are eligible to reopen under the current guidelines but is advising districts to submit their waiver anyway so it's ready when COVID-19 case rates drop in Kern.
Meszaros said the waiver may also be sought by some schools that want to hold in-person instruction for certain groups of students who need it most, such as those with disabilities or special needs. The state has said it will issue further guidance for those types of situations.
Under the waiver program, elementary schools wishing to reopen must consult with staff and labor groups, parents and community organizations about their reopening plans and publish the plan on the school or district website.
General guidelines previously issued for all schools once they reopen will require face coverings, increased cleaning, physical distancing and testing of staff on a regular basis. A school would have to revert to distance learning if 5 percent of students and staff test positive within a 14-day period, the guidelines say.
Bethel Christian School in Bakersfield is also currently going through the state guidelines that were released Monday, and staff has already started working on its reopening plan document, explained Principal Michael Kennedy.
The school has about 50 students. Kennedy said the school’s individualized program has always included student cubicles at the elementary level, “so we were fortunate to already have partitions in place before the pandemic.”
The school is requesting the ability to provide both in-person instruction combined with a distance learning program.
“This will be extremely helpful, as about 10 percent of our student population currently has a need for continued online instruction, and the remaining 90 percent of our parents have requested that their students have an option to return to the campus,” he said.
Diocese of Fresno Superintendent of Catholic Schools Mona Faulkner said in an email the Bishop’s Reopening Task Force will meet this Friday, when the waiver process for Catholic schools in the Diocese of Fresno will be discussed.
Bakersfield City, Greenfield Union and Fruitvale school districts said they will not be applying for a waiver. Rosedale Union School District Superintendent Sue Lemon said information about the waiver process will be presented to the board of trustees at its next meeting.