SSUSD plans phased-in return


Heather Orozco

Paraprofessionals ready the J4 classroom for the return of students.

Ever since school campuses abruptly closed in March, everyone has been asking the million-dollar question: when will instruction resume in-person? Unfortunately, it’s still a question with no good answer, but recent developments show hope that students will be finding their way back to campus. 

On Oct. 13, Sierra Sands Supt. Dr. Dave Ostash affirmed that Kern County met the state’s criteria to transition to a less restrictive safety plan, one which would allow school districts to make plans to reopen their campuses for in-person teaching after Oct. 28.

Ostash later clarified in another District Communication that the school district will be carefully considering how to safely proceed.

As long as we take a careful and thoughtful approach, one that takes all reasonable steps to assure safety, I do believe it is safe for most students and faculty/staff to return to instruction on campus,” said Ostash.

According to the letter sent out on Oct. 16, the current plan involves three phases for students’ return to campus. Beginning on Nov. 9, the first phase involves special education classrooms opening on three campuses. Also during November, the second phase will begin with grades Tk, K, and first  grade returning to campuses in small groups for supervised distance-learning instruction. The hope is to “phase in” more students and programs for these on-campus classroom sessions. 

Phase three is hybrid on-campus instruction which will include a mix of on and off-campus education, but as of yet, there is no start date or specific plan regarding the necessary procedures.

Burroughs teachers are excited by the prospect of seeing their students’ faces in their own classrooms again, but they also express several concerns.

“Of course it’s going to be good for all of us to be together again, but it’s another change in a year of changes,” said English Teacher Eileen Poole, who serves as president of the Desert Area Teachers Association. “Kids will adjust, but we need to focus on their well being for a while instead of academics. We all need to be especially kind and respectful and safe.”

While Burroughs educators are enthusiastic about the idea of returning to school in person, safety is the top priority and demands a careful and slow approach to the many steps needed prior to the actual return of students. 

“Compliance items related to our COVID-19 district safety plan have to be in place,” said Ostash. “This not only involves PPE but also appropriate training and practice for staff.”

It will take time for administrators to develop a plan for the safe integration of students back into classrooms. Burroughs Principal Carrie Cope explains that so far, there are no solid procedures, but many people are working to ensure safety guidelines will be adhered to. 

“I believe that we should not consider bringing back students until we have a plan that will keep students safe.  The plan will follow the state and county guidelines for reopening schools,” said Cope. 

Safety, though immensely important, is not the only concern shared by Burroughs staff. 

“We are also nervous about the extra work we will inevitably end up doing. As it is now, we work well beyond our contract hours. A hybrid model seems likely to further increase our workload,” said Poole. “We want to be fully there for our kids, but sometimes the duties that get piled on us take a toll. We teach best when we are happy and well-rested.”

It will certainly take time for most teachers to begin considering how to best transition to another new teaching environment, but there are a few teachers who have already begun to stand up to the challenges. Special Education Life Skills/Adult Program instructors are preparing to meet their students again face-to-face in early November.

“Once all of the supplies and safety measures are put into place, I do feel that we will be prepared to receive my students,” said Special Education teacher Heather Orozco. “The district has ordered the necessary supplies such as masks, shields, partitions, PPE and the students’ individual supplies.”

Strict safety measures will be in place so as to not compromise the delicacy of the situation. Burroughs staff and administration acknowledge safety as the top priority and as such, frequent hand-washing, temperature checks, and adequate physical distancing will be in place. Masks will be worn at all times by students, and staff will also be wearing face shields.

Despite the overwhelming safety regulations, teachers are no less enthusiastic about interacting with their students in-person again.

“My students need hands-on learning as well as social emotional skills and support. This time off has been very hard for them,” said Orozco. “By returning, I can give the specialized supports needed for my students to succeed and learn. Socially and emotionally my students will greatly improve with being able to see and interact with staff and their friends as well.”

While it is still too early for specific plans to be announced regarding the return of larger numbers of students, many are hoping and eagerly waiting for such a time to come. BHS junior Olivia Harvey is one such student who hopes to return to a more normal routine.

“As long as safety precautions are being taken seriously, I think it is okay for us to return,” said Harvey. “I think that in-person interaction would be beneficial, but the modified schedule would have to include enough time with people for it to be worthwhile for me.”

This time last school year, nobody anticipated Distance Learning or a worldwide pandemic. Despite many abrupt changes to everyone’s daily routines, schools have adapted well and have been working hard to ensure every student continues to have a quality education. However, it has difficult to adjust, as Harvey points out.

“Distance learning has had a huge impact on my motivation. There is an immense difference between coming home from school or practice and doing your homework and logging out of Zoom and doing it,” said Harvey. “I am hoping to return. I’ve always known junior year would be difficult academically, but I looked forward to the fun parts and I still want to experience as many of those as I can.”

The task of bringing students back to campus is a large project, with many steps and guidelines to follow. So far, no one can even imagine returning to education as it was prior to COVID-19, but students, staff, and administrators will be working harder than ever to bring students back to the familiar routine of walking through the halls and collaborating with peers face-to-face — albeit with masks on. 

It will definitely take time to ensure that student safety and health is not at risk, but Poole optimistically points out that it will give everyone adequate time to prepare and “find their shoes!”