Kids going back to school is a giant step toward reopening the economy and society in the age of COVID-19, and Sierra Sands Unified School District looks to ramp up its opening over the course of November and December.

Kern County was given the green light to move into the red (the Substantial Tier of COVID-19 state-imposed restrictions) and out of the purple (the Widespread Tier), which starts the clock on a two-week countdown to reopening schools, if they choose to open.

SSUSD intends to, but the doors will not open fully all at once, as the district will follow the current popular pattern of restoring services slowly and progressively. Schools will reopen in three phases with the first phases, pending approval, to be implemented in November.

“I acknowledge that some families want their students to be back on campus immediately,” said SSUSD Superintendent Dave OStash in a message sent to parents of students. “It is very important that we ‘roll out’ phases of reopening so that we do not have to ‘roll back.’”

Ostash said at Thursday night’s SSUSD board meeting that the district never technically closed as it offered distance, or virtual, learning. He admitted that while it has its pros and cons, online teaching is a strategy the district will continue with as it reopens campuses.

In-person instruction will begin with those who have the most need: those on individualized programs, foster youth, the socio-economically challenged, those with learning disabilities, and the youngest learners who may be at risk of falling behind or stunting progress with language skills, including kindergarten and first grade and those for whom English is a second language, Ostash said.

The first phase, dubbed “Small Cohort,” will include nine classroom special education classrooms — six at Richmond Elementary, two at Gateway Elementary, and one for young adults ages 18-22 at Burroughs High, with 10-14 students per classroom.

Phase two is called “Supervised Distance Learning (DL) Hubs On Campus,” which will be made available for parents who feel their child would be better served being on campus or with supervision while distance learning.

This will include TK, K, and first grades at all elementary schools. The plans are to scale up Phase two through the winter to include all students with all grades, TK-12, having an opportunity to learn in supervised classrooms.

Phase three is called “Hybrid On-Campus Instruction” that would look similar to life pre-COVID, but there are health and safety factors to consider before moving to this stage.

At the meeting, Ostash explained the approach to opening is a result of restrictions imposed by the state and county and negotiations between the local bargaining units, including the teachers’ union.

Kern County was able to meet the threshold to advance tier restrictions set by the state and re-open parts of the economy, but if COVID-19 cases or positivity rates rise, the county could be demoted and tighter restrictions imposed, which would stop the two-week clock on reopening.