Schools now closed until May 5

District ramps up home-learning, nutrition programs

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Schools now closed until May 5Sierra Sands Unified School District announced this week that, after consulting with the Kern County Superintendent of Schools office, campus closures have been extended until May 5.

Superintendent Dr. David Ostash sent out a message to staff, students and parents that, after consulting with the Kern County Superintendent of Schools office, and in light of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order for all but essential service providers Californians to stay in their residences, SSUSD will delay the return to school that was originally set at April 14.

“We understand how challenging these decisions are for our families and we appreciate your support in patience,” said Ostash. He noted that teachers will return on Monday, May 4, to help plan and prepare for the return of students.

As the second week of campus closures come to an end, SSUSD is ratcheting up efforts to equip students for home learning and expanding on the support services traditionally provided by local schools — including access to food service, uninterrupted pay schedules for employees and the provision of child care.

In the days that followed the closure, instructors and other support staff immediately began making plans for giving students online and paper options for completing coursework during the closure. On Monday, the district began sending home Chromebooks and instructional packets for thousands of students.

“I think this experience was positive and inspirational beyond anyone’s expectations,” said SSUSD Superintendent Dr. David Ostash.

“The number of parents who responded, and who remained engaged and committed to working together to resolve this challenge, is just extraordinary. More than half of our parents for Transitional Kindergarten through eighth-grade students showed up, and many of them waited in a very long line to get a Chromebook.”

By the end of this week, 700 Chromebooks had gone home with students. The district has also made arrangements to purchase hundreds of MiFi devices for students without internet access.

However, Ostash noted that staff is doing its best to manage these assets, which come with ongoing costs, in order to make sure they go to the families most in need.

He also sent out a notification to parents that Chromebooks “remain district-owned devices and are intended for students to use for school work only. Only the student will be able to login to the device using their school e-mail address, and all activity on the Chromebook will be monitored just as if it were at the school.”

One of the biggest challenges facing the district is managing engagement and productivity under extremely limiting circumstances.

“Some teachers already have these incredibly built-out systems with multiple interfaces for their students to engage with. Others with more traditional setups have a steeper learning curve trying to adapt to our current challenges,” said Ostash.

He said that the school’s nutritional program has also been highly successful. Between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. on weekdays, parents can pickup of free lunches for that day and breakfast for the following morning for any children, age 1-18, present — regardless of where the child attends school.

So far James Monroe, Pierce, Faller and Inyokern campuses offer this drive-up service.

Starting Thursday, the district began offering meal delivery to key bus stops around town (see for times and locations).

Employees continue to be paid while they do their best to work from home, said Ostash.

“The most difficult challenge for us, and for many other districts, is finding a way to meet the governor’s directive to provide supervision for school children,” he said.

“This is precisely why Kern County was, and continues to be, judicious and cautions entering into this process. Especially in the remote areas on this side of our county, there are so many children who are reliant on us not just for learning, but for whole services relating to nutrition, health, counseling, stability, safety, treatment and care.”

Many of these children are now outside of the influence and oversight that schools typically provide to students who need support.

“And on top of the ordinary difficulties that come with life, parents are now coping with other stresses of shortages and layoffs. A lot of homes have been derailed by these pressures,” said Ostash.

“Obviously, I would defer to the health and welfare experts in our society about the timing of returning to school. And we each have a duty within our society to follow those recommendations. But I hope it is appropriate to return back to school as soon as is practical — for so many reasons.”

Pictured: Sergio Cortez passes a chromebook to one of the parents who waited in long lines to equip their students for home instruction. — Photo by Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2020-03-27