School sites will not reopen this term

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

School sites will not reopen this termSchools in the Indian Wells Valley will finish out the year with the current home-learning model, as increasingly strict directives from California officials finally take off the table a return to campuses this spring.

Although the Kern County Superintendent of Schools officially made the announcement Thursday morning, a Tuesday letter from California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond hinted at that outcome.

“Due to the current safety concerns and needs for ongoing social distancing, it currently appears that our students will not be able to return to school campuses before the end of the school year,” states Thurmond.

“This is in no way to suggest that school is over for the year, but rather we should put all efforts into strengthening our delivery of education through distance learning.”

The letter goes on to urge districts to find ways to supplement remote instruction through technology — the financing of which the office of public instruction is hoping to procure support from the philanthropic sector.

The Kern County Superintendent of Schools office, led by Dr. Mary Barlow, met Wednesday with officials from the 47 districts in Kern, and announced at 8 a.m. Thursday their decision to accommodate the directive from the state.

“[We] recognize the impacts of school facility closures for families,” Barlow said in a press release. She also promised information regarding grades, graduation, transcripts, scholarships and other details would be handled. “This is a dynamic situation where information and circumstances can evolve quickly.”

Dr. David Ostash, superintendent of Sierra Sands Unified School District, acknowledged that this has been a challenging time for teachers, staff and other district officials, each of whom has navigated a complex and sometimes conflicting series of directives in order to offer the support that public schools historically provide to families and communities while still enforcing social distancing protocols.

“This rapidly changing environment doesn’t just add to the actual workload, I think it negatively impacts people’s mindsets and sense of well-being,” said Ostash. “I believe that most people operate most effectively when they understand timelines and expectations and constraints.

“Having things in a constant state of flux takes a toll. There is an extreme pressure that has been added to our employees, our students and their families.”

Sierra Sands has already implemented instruction through a mix of paper packets and online applications. More than 700 Chromebooks went out to students who had no access to a device, and the district also procured funding for Mi-Fi devices for families without internet.

The district has also implemented grab-and-go food services, which provides two meals for an average of 2,500 students each weekday.

Ostash said that he is still awaiting guidance from the county and state to determine how end-of-year routines will be impacted.

He said that he did not anticipate accelerated risks for gaps in learning. “There is still a requirement for student engagement. I had a college professor who said ‘you improve your grade just by showing up.’ So there may be passive supports that come with being present for instruction.

“But this is all uncharted territory,” said Ostash. “We are collectively, as a profession, doing everything in our power to make sure students don’t get lost in the upheaval. This is a massive change in education that will have ramifications for years to come.”

The silver lining, so far, is the commitment demonstrated by every level of the community. “The one thing I can say is that I could not have hoped for better support and engagement from our teachers, staff, students and parents.

“Our board takes its stewardship of governance very seriously. They knew the hardships that these kinds of changes would cause families, and every decision has been considered carefully with the knowledge that anything decided adds weight to the burden our staff and families already carry,” he said.

“The resilience and professionalism our teachers have demonstrated is phenomenal. This has certainly stretched everyone, but the energy our teachers and staff are investing is to be commended. The ways they have continued to accommodate and modify their instruction will pay dividends to our students down the road.”

Ostash said that he still hopes there is some way the high school can honor its class of graduating seniors.

“We have to find a way to show our children that this is a significant achievement. The Class of 2020 has lost a lot of the traditions and rituals that help build the sense of anticipation and excitement leading up to commencement. I hope we can find a way to appropriately honor them.”

Pictured: Superintendent Dr. David Ostash participates in video conference meeting using Zoom — a staple in communication during these times of social distancing. — Photo by Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2020-04-02