Public schools in Kern County will remain open at this time, but as concerns over the coronavirus continue to grow, that may not be the case for long.
Administrators from Kern County’s 47 school districts met Friday to discuss the potential for school closures in their local communities. Because there are no confirmed COVID-19 cases in Kern and no evidence of community-wide transmissions, there was consensus that Kern County schools will remain open for the time being, according to the Superintendent of Schools’ office.
“There’s always been the collective that we want to stay open as long as we can with the caveat that we want to assure everyone’s safe,” said Kern County Superintendent of Schools Communications Director Robert Meszaros. “We’re standing firm, taking directive from health experts and that will determine the next course of action.”
The news comes at a time when a number of schools across the country are electing to make temporary closures.
In Southern California, the Los Angeles and San Diego unified school districts announced they will shut down effective next week. Also, all Catholic schools under the Diocese of Fresno are shutting their doors for at least two weeks beginning Monday. In Kern County, that includes Garces Memorial High School, Our Lady of Guadalupe, St. Francis Parish, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, St. Philip’s Preschool and St. Ann’s in Ridgecrest.
KCSOS districts have also canceled all non-essential travel, field trips, sporting events and gatherings with more than 250 people through at least the end of March, and in some cases until further notice.
While the topic of conversation among Kern County superintendents was primarily on school closures, other factors came into play during the decision making process.
One of the main concerns was delivering quality education to students who aren’t in classrooms.
“With Kern County being a poverty-stricken area, there’s many families who don’t have access to devices or internet. We really need to focus on being equitable and what we do for those alternative forms,” Meszaros explained.
McFarland Unified Superintendent Aaron Resendez said the district has online distant learning lessons and programs “ready to go” if needed. Most families in the area have low-cost or no-cost internet available, but there are still around 200 to 250 students without WiFi coverage.
Resendez is also looking to provide mobile hotspots and other connective devices to students who need them. Traditional paper and pencil lessons will also be available.
Kern High School District Public Information Officer Erin Briscoe said the district is currently looking at “all options.”
SCHOOL MEALS AND CHILDCARE
The county serves 190,000 students, 73 percent of which receive free and reduced price meals and extra-support resources. Whether schools remain open or closed, districts will continue to provide those meals.
The question is how, especially if gatherings of 250 people or more are prohibited.
Resendez said the district serves 5,000 meals a day, and without a program in place, “those are meals they’ll miss.” His idea would be to set up sack lunches or boxes with multiple meals inside that students can pick up through a curbside-type method.
Having children home all day, possibly without the care of parents who need to work, was another concern for superintendents. Those scenarios are why “ultimately the consensus was we want to stay open for those families who need these services for as much as we can,” Meszaros said
‘EVERYONE IS OVERREACTING AND PANICKING’
Parents, students and educators all have mixed feelings on whether schools should be closed or remain open.
Sabrina Ingram, a Panama-Buena Vista Union School District parent, though not as concerned as some, still believes shutting down schools for at least two weeks would help control some of the fears people are exhibiting.
“We all feel like everyone is overreacting and panicking,” she said. “I’m talking about with all the shelves empty at almost every store in town with no water bottle cases or toilet paper ... I mean we don’t even have an actual COVID-19 case here in Kern County.”
Seeing the “madhouse” herself, Jennypher Lopez, who has children at Donald E. Suburu Elementary School, Lakeside School and West High School, said they’re getting worried themselves about the coronavirus. With such a large family, having food to feed everyone becomes an issue when shoppers flock to stores and clear out aisles. Without school meal programs in place, it would be a big impact on her family.
Lopez hopes schools close because her children are surrounded by hundreds of people daily and “that’s a lot of exposure.”
There’s even been a petition created on Petition.org with more than 5,000 signatures asking KHSD officials to switch to online classes.
Others, however, say it’s necessary to keep schools open so students have equal access to education and other benefits.
“Closing for two-to-three weeks would be a lot ... it’s the busiest time of year,” said Stockdale High School junior Ishaan Brar, noting advanced placement tests, ACT exams, tournaments and competitions all take place around this time of year. It’s been frustrating so many events have been canceled in recent days, he said, because of all the hard work that goes into preparing for them.
Teachers Gaby Scully and Kristen Torres, from Stockdale and Golden Valley high schools, respectively, think internet access at home and other adequate services would be issues for many families.
“We just have so many kids for whom school is a safe and provided zone. It provides food, friendship, adults that care,” Scully said. “I’m very grateful our kids get to come to school Monday to get that love and support.”
Ema Sasic can be reached at 661-395-7392. Twitter: @ema_sasic.