A COVID-19 milestone: Some schools to reopen next week in Sonoma County
Nearly a year after school campuses across Sonoma County were shut in the face of the growing coronavirus pandemic, doors to classrooms at a small number of schools are set to open as early as Monday.
That’s when Sonoma Charter School is slated to open its doors to kindergartners and first and second graders. On Wednesday, Liberty School in north Petaluma is planning to bring students and staff back.
They are likely to be followed by four more schools and districts that have received approval from the Sonoma County Department of Health Services to bring students and staff back to campus in modified schedules and in entirely different routines.
“It’s like opening day of school but on another planet,” said Marc Elin, director of the 215-student Sonoma Charter School. “I’m thrilled. This is just good news.”
The Sonoma County Department of Health Services has COVID Safety Plans from 24 schools and districts across Sonoma County. Six schools’ plans, including those from Sonoma Charter and Liberty School, have received approval, clearing the way for schools to reopen for modified in-person instruction.
Those schools and districts join the 10 schools — nine of which are private — that had been cleared to reopen starting in October, provided the state had approved their safety protocols. That waiver program was halted in late November as virus cases throughout the state began to surge, but schools already cleared were allowed to continue.
At a community briefing Wednesday, county public health officer Dr. Sundari Mase described the safety plans of the six schools and districts that received clearance to open as “stellar.”
“Very soon we will be announcing more schools to be reopening,” she said.
Also on Wednesday, Sonoma County’s largest school district, Santa Rosa City Schools, approved plans to bring back its approximately 5,000 elementary school students on April 1 and 2 and its nearly 11,000 secondary students back starting on April 26 and 29.
Santa Rosa’s plan is in part predicated on the county’s anticipated move out of the purple tier, the most restrictive stage of the state’s color-coded coronavirus reopening plan, and into the red, which indicates substantial, but not widespread, transmission of the virus.
Once in red, the rules for returning staff and students to campuses change and schools and districts no longer need county health department approval to reopen. A move into red would also clear the way to return the county’s middle and high school students to the classroom — something that was not allowed in the purple tier.
In the meantime, Santa Rosa’s COVID Safety Plan remains in the county review process. Revisions were received by the county Feb. 23. A response from the county to those changes is due Thursday.
Windsor Unified School District has a plan submitted and is also due a response from the county to its revisions by Thursday. County response to changes submitted by Wilmar Union School district, west of Petaluma, is due Tuesday and Two Rock Elementary, also west of Petaluma, is slated to receive word on its revisions by Wednesday.
If a school opens to at least one full grade for in-person instruction, that school is allowed to stay open and proceed with its reopening strategy even if Sonoma County falls back into the purple tier.
“Once that happens and schools do open, even if we were to jump back into the purple tier, the schools remain open,” Mase said.
Like many proposed return-to-school plans being considered by the county, Sonoma Charter School will open Monday with in-person instruction for just kindergarten, first and second graders. After spring break, on March 29, older grades will begin to return in a part-time distance learning, part-time in-person format, Elin said.
But on Monday, campus doors will open for a class of kindergarten students who have never seen the inside of their classroom, as well as first and second graders for whom campus life may be little more than a vague memory.
Because each of the three grades returning has just one class of students, school officials were able to break them into two stable groups which will attend a full day of school four days a week, Elin said.
“Those kids have been exposed to so much screen time,” Elin said. “What we love about having them back on campus is they are in a more traditional model, a more physical model. They are not looking at screens anymore, they are looking at an adult.”
You can reach Staff Writer Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @benefield.