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By Tina Fisher Cunningham
Fisher Forde Media 

Children return to classes, school opening 'a roller coaster'

The Forde Files – No. 209


April 24, 2021

Tina Fisher Cunningham

Tehachapi Unified School District teachers and staff honored Payroll Technician Susan Dodge and Jacobsen Middle School English teacher Mandy Fisher as TUSD Trailblazers for March. Classified employee Dodge has been with the district for six years. Certificated employee Fisher has taught at TUSD for 25 years. Above: Dodge at the April 13 board meeting.

Another wave of Tehachapi schoolchildren returned to Tehachapi Unified School District (TUSD) campuses on April 12 in scaled-down, phased-in classes and schedules designed to minimize COVID-19 exposure.

The students are divided into two groups – A and B – that attend in-person instruction on separate days, therefore, half the district's students are engaged in in-person instruction at the same time.

"Those groups don't mix," TUSD Superintendent Stacey Larson-Everson said at the April 13 TUSD Board of Trustees meeting in the district board room, where seven socially distanced persons were in the audience and 25 more attended virtually.

Each group attends in-person classes two mornings a week – group A on Mondays and Tuesdays and group B on Thursdays and Fridays. Students access additional instruction in the afternoons and remainder of the days remotely.

On four days a week (Monday-Tuesday, Thursday-Friday), Tompkins, Golden Hills and Cummings Valley elementary schools provide in-person learning from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. Jacobsen Middle School (JMS) and Tehachapi High School (THS) have classes from 7:30 to 10:30 a.m. on those days. Wednesday is sanitation day.

A total of 1,827 students are currently attending blended (in-person and remote) learning classes.

The return process has been incremental. Special education and at-risk cohorts began attending in-person in Nov. 2020. On March 2 and 8, students with moderate and severe special needs returned in-person. On March 15 and April 12, transitional kindergarten to second grade youngsters returned in person. On March 22 and April 12, 3rd and 5th graders returned and on April 12 secondary students returned in person.

While California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) league play is not in progress, THS athletes are engaged in conditioning practices and coach Ryan Grimes has set up competitions with other high schools.

"It's been a real roller coaster," Larson-Everson said. "There is new guidance on a nearly daily basis."

The guidance, she said, comes from multiple levels, including federal Centers for Disease Control, the California Department of Public Health and the Kern County Public Health Department. The Jan. 14 guidance from the California Department of Public Health triggered a major shift as the state required a safety review, which San Diego County challenged with litigation.

The rules that were being thrashed out at the time became moot as counties moved into different color-coded levels of COVID impact.

"Everybody is in a different spot," Larson-Everson said. "Mojave on March 3 decided not to provide services for the remainder of the school year. In Arvin and Fruitvale, some are doing less than us, some are doing more with regard to campus instruction."

By June 15, according to California Gov. Gavin Newsom, she said, "there will be no barriers for students to return back to the classroom."

Students stay with their group

Under current guidance, teachers are required to be six feet away from students and students are distanced at three feet. When they are eating or drinking, the distance is six feet.

The A and B groups stay together when they are at school.

The groups are further pared down based by the size of the classrooms, which vary from 750 square feet to 1,250 square feet. The COVID-regulated classrooms can accommodate from 15 to 23 students, she said.

"Even at three feet [distance] we can't accommodate all students," she said. "That's why we're on the A and B schedule."

Throughout the pandemic, she said, lunches have been available to all students. TUSD Food Services provided 23,700 meals to students during the month of March, up from 14,820 meals in February.

The district is planning "robust summer offerings," Larson-Everson said. The boot camp-style courses will help students catch up academically and will be offered in-person. Summer school will include the usual credit recovery courses.

In response to Trustee Joe Wallek's question about what steps are being taken to bring students up to grade level, the Superintendent said the allocation of funding, the Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP) and availability of staffing over the next several years will determine how the district is able to deal with the academic, social and emotional needs of the students.

The school principals are assessing student progress based on achievement levels from last year and this year, Larson-Everson said, and the results of the data analysis will help the district provide appropriate intervention and summer programs.

"We want to make sure our plan is responsive to current student needs," she said.

Five days – when?

"I didn't hear an answer to Mr. Wallek's question," said public commenter Leslie Whiteside, who endorsed holding back students based on their academic level. "I would love retention," she said. "The same grade would be totally reasonable – academic placement rather than age placement."

The elephant in the room, Whiteside said, is when the students will return to five days a week of in-person instruction.

"It's frustrating. It feels like a lot of turtles are working on this."

Public speaker parent Melissa Morgan urged the board to make five days a priority.

"What do you need from us parents?" she said. "We can help set up makeshift classrooms."

Public speaker parent Brian Reel said his first-grade son attends Golden Hills Elementary School an equivalent of one day per week.

"It should be possible to serve all the students with three-foot spacing," Reel said. "We've seen many districts offer hybrid A-B learning schedules five days a week with a morning group and an afternoon group. Could this work for our district?"

Public speaker Brandi Reel said that the district mitigation procedures seem to be stricter than the state recommendations.

"Every instance of more extreme mitigations deprives our students of opportunities for in-person instruction," she said.

Board President Trustee Jeff Kermode said the board has extra meetings scheduled in the coming months, and, "We'll be staying on top of it."

He said the district is bringing back students progressively.

"You are being heard," he told the parents. "We are trying."

Larson-Everson acknowledged the difficulty of remediation following the pandemic interruption.

"We do have intervention programs that need to be fortified," she said.

Trustee Tyler Napier, father of six students, said that while his 3rd grader is behind two to three grade levels, the intervention of the IEP [Individualized Education Program] team made a huge impact on the boy.

"The IEP team is fantastic," he said. "They have a passion for the kids. My son returned with a glow on his face. He was happy, with a whole different demeanor."

The board approved the new position of School Social Worker, a supplemental, high-priority position to help with student transition back to school.

Camo cell tower

In housekeeping business matters, the board voted 7-0 approval of all items on the lengthy agenda except for a recusal by City of Tehachapi employee Napier on a motion regarding city right-of-way, and a nay vote by Trustee Wallek on the approval of the job description for Director of Student Services.

Asserting redundancy, Wallek said, "Our job descriptions need a lot of cleanup."

Tina Fisher Cunningham

Mandy Fisher.

Chief Administrator, Business Services Hojat Entezari presented information on a proposal by AT&T to lease school district land near the district maintenance yard on Valley Boulevard for a 60-foot cell tower that would be camouflaged to look like a tall pine tree and be surrounded by real pine trees. After an initial payment of $5,000, the $3,000 monthly payment over 25 years would bring the district $1.28 million in unrestricted funds. The location is adjacent to the forthcoming Sage Ranch development.

Conceding that it's a good revenue stream, Trustee Napier said, "It's hideous. Fake. There will be homes built there. I don't think we're in the business of being bad neighbors by allowing a hideous pine tree."

"It's a win-win," Trustee Rick Scott said. "We get the money and better cell service."

Kermode said the project has to go through the city planning process, and the district is under no obligation to lease.

The public portion of the meeting began at 5 p.m. and ended at 9:27 p.m.


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