Superintendent Stacey Larson-Everson spoke with Tehachapi News last week to discuss how Tehachapi Unified School District's students began their transition back to campuses.
The original plan was for students in transitional kindergarten through second grade to begin returning Monday, March 15. However, inclement weather delayed this until Wednesday, Larson-Everson said.
During snow days, TUSD will often call for a two-hour delay to the start of school. However, with the blended learning schedule, this was not possible.
"The way that we have our schedule structured, it really wasn't practical to have a two-hour delay when we really weren't sure when the storm was going to hit," Larson-Everson said, adding, "It was a district decision to not have our buses on the road Monday and Tuesday."
In January, parents and guardians had the opportunity to choose whether they wanted their children to continue with virtual learning or go to blended learning, a combination of both in-class and virtual instruction.
"TUSD's blended learning model allows the district to bring back students TK through fifth grade who are eligible and desire to return to in-person learning," Larson-Everson said.
The superintendent estimated that approximately 25 percent of students elected to return before spring break. Of these children, students in TK through second grade began blended learning at three of TUSD's elementary schools last Thursday.
"It went really well, and it was very exciting. It was heart-warming to see the kids returning to class and the parents were also excited," Larson-Everson said.
Starting Monday, students in third to fifth grade began their transition back to school. Due to distancing requirements, classroom spaces do not permit for all students to be in the classroom at the same time as is traditional, Larson-Everson said.
Since this is the case, the superintendent said a schedule to support two different in-person learning groups has been established.
"Also, some families may chose to have their child continue with virtual learning through the end of the year. In order to accommodate all of these factors, students who choose blended learning in-person will attend school on a modified schedule, which will enable TUSD elementary teachers to support both of their in-person learning groups as well as their students who choose to remain 100 percent virtual," Larson-Everson said.
With the developed schedule, students get to stay with the same teacher and classmates they have been with all year, providing continuity under the challenging circumstances.
"If a parent or guardian missed the deadline in January to choose the blended learning model for their child or has since changed their mind, another opportunity to select blended learning will be available," Larson-Everson said.
Parents received information on how to apply for blended learning for their children last week, and have through March 26 to elect this option.
Normally, in a regular school year without restrictions, 70 children can ride on a school bus. However, due to state restrictions, Larson-Everson said only 14 children per bus are able to ride at this time.
"Transportation resources continue to be limited due to the geographical size of TUSD and the ongoing requirement for students to distance by six feet even while on a school bus. The distancing requirements greatly reduce the number of students that TUSD can transport to and from school," Larson-Everson said.
Currently, TUSD transportation services are being provided to those student groups who are most vulnerable to a negative impact from virtual learning, including students with special needs as well as homeless and foster youth, Larson-Everson said.
"Part of our challenge with this is that we only have the number of buses that we have, and under normal conditions, it is not a difficulty for us to transport all of the students who would like to have transportation. But, we are not able to at this time. We are strategizing and prioritizing the number of seats that we have available to the highest needs students," Larson-Everson said.
The superintendent said that, with ever-changing landscape of state-imposed rules and regulations, the pandemic has caused a "huge learning curve for everyone."
"The state has not made this easy for school districts. The governor, California Department of Education and Public Health have changed the rules on us over and over and over again, creating these situations where we have to pivot repeatedly to try to align ourselves with the new requirements, and that has been a real challenge," Larson-Everson said, adding that she understands how this has upset some parents and students.
Since Kern County remains in the Purple Tier, school districts are prohibited from returning middle school and high schoolers to in-classroom learning.
"I know how upsetting this is to everyone... Our teachers want to be back in the classroom with their students," Larson-Everson said.
According to the superintendent, TUSD's health and safety plans for reopening have been signed off on and approved by Kern Public Health Services.
"We feel that we are very ready to go on all of the safety issues, and we are ready to serve students," Larson-Everson said.