Schools forced into online start

New start date, special needs funding and offerings, other details still pending

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Schools  forced into  online startWith the anticipation of Kern County landing on the state’s “monitoring list” starting today (see related story: news-ridgecrest.com/news/story.pl?id=0000011612), Sierra Sands Unified School District Board of Education held a special session Tuesday night to move forward with plans for the mandated distance-learning model to be implemented at the start of this term.

“We are all in a pandemic. These are challenging times for all of us. Our entire society is striving to pivot as rapidly and meaningfully and successfully as we possibly can,” said SSUSD Superintendent Dr. David Ostash.

“By their very natures, public institutions have rigorous processes that are not designed to move quickly. But we know that we have to, and we are doing our very best.”

Last week, the board of education — with the recommendation of the district and support of the teachers union — voted to adopt an education model for the coming year that offered options for both online and modified on-campus instruction for new and returning students. (See related story, Page 2.)

Ostash noted that the plan was the result of months of work from district staff, teachers, parents and community members who have been meeting weekly in order to find a way to meet the needs of Sierra Sands students while protecting the safety of all stakeholders.

However, two days after the board’s decision, Kern County Public Health Department reported that its number of positive COVID-19 cases and hospitalization rates had exceeded the guidelines outlined by Gov. Gavin Newsom and other state agencies. With our resulting placement on the monitoring list, local schools are no longer eligible for on-campus instruction.

While the district has no legal option other than reverting to distance learning, Ostash offered his listeners assurance that the forthcoming online instruction will be more robust and comprehensive, drawing heavily from the lessons learned last spring when on-campus instruction was eliminated by state mandate.

He also confirmed that the district would transition to an on-campus model as soon as Sierra Sands is eligible to do so.

In presenting the plan for reopening, Ostash told the board that the financial implications of the shift to distance-learning remain unknown. He also noted that many of the details have not yet been nailed down.

Of particular concern are those students for whom distance learning is an impossibility. Newsom said that the state has approved $5.3 billion to address special needs in education, but little in the way of official guidance or funding has been received.

During the discussion amongst the board members, Ostash acknowledged that all recommendations from staff are based on the guiding principles outlined by the re-opening committee — which include following the law and taking all reasonable steps to follow guidance; protecting the health and safety of students and staff; and addressing the “whole” education of the child, including providing opportunities for socializing, nutritional services and optimized learning conditions.

A consensus of the board expressed that comprehensive education was best delivered in on-campus, in-person instruction.

Ostash noted that according to state guidelines, Kern County would have to be off the monitoring list a minimum of 14 consecutive days before a return to campus would be allowed.

He said that all the work that went into the last six weeks of planning for on-campus instruction “is still 100 percent valuable and current.” That has given the district a transition plan for a modified return to in-person learning, when appropriate.

What the immediate plan looks like “is a moving target, because what the guidance will be from the county is unknown.”

Following board approval, Ostash sent out an e-mail to parents that summarized challenges, goals and steps forward.

He said that even during the distancing-learning phase, the staff will continue to prepare for a return to campus. He also acknowledged that many improvements are planned for “Distance Learning 2.0.”

Along with an enhanced roll-out of technology and tools, the district is endeavoring to front-load several professional development days into the school year in order to support teachers in the new delivery. Discussions for a calendar change are underway, and could potentially delay the official start of school a few days.

“There are many details to communicate with you as we prepare to launch a most unusual school year,” Ostash wrote. “You will continue to receive communication from the district that will help you plan and prepare to ensure your student and family success.”

At the request of Trustee Kurt Rockwell, and the agreement of the board, Ostash included verbiage into the staff recommendation to include the district’s guiding principles as well as a statement of belief that the board believed that on-campus education was the best way to meet the needs of its students. The resolution was unanimously adopted.

Ostash said that the district may be at an inflection point, where moving forward it might offer robust and permanent options for both on-campus and virtual education.

Details will be reported as they become available. See details at ssusd.org for board packets and other updates.

Story First Published: 2020-07-24