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Sonoma County school district leaders want public health input for campus reopening plans

Sonoma County’s 40 public school districts are exploring how to reopen campuses in the fall, but want more guidance from state officials and county public health experts who have yet to spell out necessary requirements for that ?massive undertaking.

Sonoma County Superintendent of Schools Steve Herrington on Friday wrote a letter to the county Department of Health Services and the Board of Supervisors, outlining several overarching questions local district leaders want answered before crafting a countywide plan to safely allow students and teachers back ?to classrooms.

How many students can be on campus at any given time? What sort of meal service is safe? Will everyone have to wear masks? How should physical education or recess be provided? What kind of transportation arrangements should be considered? These are among the questions Herrington posed to county elected and health officials.

Much of the county reopening conversation has so far emphasized businesses to reignite the battered local economy. That’s left area superintendents searching for answers on how to provide education and child care during the age of the coronavirus for 70,000 students whose families make up the part of the county’s workforce.

“If the county is expecting stores and business to be operational, that’s not practical if you don’t have schools open,” Herrington said. “Parents can’t go back to work ?without schools.”

His letter, which requested a response from local public health leaders by June 1, was sent a day after a committee of school district officials leading the reopening effort had a conference call with Dr. Sundari Mase, the county’s health officer.

Herrington said county school district officials want to craft a guiding document for schools to reopen that’s spells out specific local health recommendations. This plan would be submitted to county supervisors for approval.

So far the state has not addressed public school campus reopening outright, but Mase thinks some of the safeguards and policies for high-risk businesses in the state’s detailed plan to reboot the economy could apply.

“If the state comes out with recommendations for school reopening, we will follow suit,” the county’s top public health official said last week. “We are going to look and cast a wide net to see if there’s any other school districts anywhere really that have started opening in California. My understanding is there haven’t been, so we’ll see if there’s a model.”

Many Sonoma County districts began discussing how to return to classrooms shortly after schools were forced to close in mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic, and at-home instruction became the norm. Diann Kitamura, superintendent of Santa Rosa City Schools, said a district with 16,000 students and 1,600 employees requires long-term planning and community buy-in for an undertaking like this to work.

In the absence so far of health-specific instructions for schools, the county’s largest school district has looked at different campus reopening scenarios using their interpretations of the current local public health emergency order, but “we haven’t landed on anything yet,” Kitamura said.

State Superintendent of Public Education Tony Thurmond said in virtual press briefing Wednesday that the authority over when and how schools reopen still lies with local districts, breaking from a comment Gov. Gavin Newsom made last month saying schools could reopen as soon as July.

Many Sonoma County districts are exploring a return in September.

Thurmond suggested public schools could shuffle students in morning and afternoon shifts to reduce class sizes and allow for social distancing. Some could opt for a combination of distance learning and in-person instruction, he said.

Kitamura is apprehensive about staggering students at different times of the day, or designing A- and B-day schedules to limit contact between students. An approach like that could burden parents since children would be home some days.

What is clear so far is that it’s going to be a gradual process, and elementary, middle and high schools all have to be viewed differently, the Santa Rosa superintendent said.

Gary Callahan, superintendent of Petaluma City Schools, said resuming classroom instruction to elementary students is critical, especially for building their social and emotional foundation when they’re sensitive to major changes.

Elementary school classes also tend to be smaller and more static, with students usually staying in a single classroom for most of the school day. That could make primary schools easier to operate under social distancing protocols, he said.

“Students will be receiving instruction both at home and at school, and not all students will be coming to school at the same time initially,” Callahan said. “I think that’s where things will land.”

Many of the safest scenarios for Sonoma County public schools to reopen campuses might not be financially viable since school district budgets are expected to be cut, as California legislators work with the governor to narrow a $54 billion state deficit. Last week, Newsom revealed the grim news that fighting the COVID-19 outbreak quickly had spun the state from a multibillion surplus into a deep financial hole.

Schools are promised roughly 40% of California’s general fund, and despite a series of stopgap measures, Newsom’s revised 2021 budget still includes a $10 billion drop in statewide education spending.

For Santa Rosa City Schools, much time earlier this year was spent working to overcome a $13 million budget shortfall before the pandemic. If current state projections hold, the district could face up to $11 million in additional budget cuts next year, asking fewer employees to do more work with even less money, Kitamura said.

“It exacerbates this entire situation,” she said. “I think the policymakers need to be aware of the domino effect of every decision that needs to be made. There’s impact. Schools need more consideration, and it doesn’t feel like we are on par with business.”

Staff Writer Julie Johnson contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or yousef.baig@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @YousefBaig.

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