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Sonoma County schools see 83 virus cases in first two weeks

Sonoma County schools dealt with at least 83 cases of COVID-19 within the first two weeks of the school year, health officials said in a community briefing this week.

Of the cases identified, 68 were students and 16 were staff members. Around 10%, or eight of those cases, were determined by contact tracers to be caused by school-based transmission.

Those and other countywide statistics presented Wednesday by Sonoma County public health workers on the epidemiology and school support team offer a broad snapshot of schools’ dealings with COVID-19 during their initial weeks of full-time in-person instruction.

But parents and teachers in school districts, large and small, continue to express a desire for timely public updates about the number of cases at the schools where they work or their children attend, including whether COVID-19 is spreading there.

“The joy of learning is really being tempered with anxiety, worry and stress,” said Kathryn Howell, president of the Santa Rosa Teachers Association, in her report during the Santa Rosa City Schools board meeting Wednesday night.

“The numbers are high, but we don’t know how high, because the notifications that I’m receiving, that our teachers are receiving, don’t seem to match the number of kids that are at home,” Howell said.

County public health officials are tracking one outbreak so far, which is defined as three or more cases in a classroom that are linked, according to Julia Rubin, a county epidemiologist who spoke at the community briefing on Wednesday.

But on Thursday, the epidemiology team declined to provide additional details about where the outbreak happened or how many students and staff were required to quarantine at home as a result.

“We cannot comment on the details of any outbreak unless we are specifically asked to do so by the entity involved,” said Matt Brown, county spokesman, in an email.

Sonoma County School Cases 082521.pdf

Without timely information on cases from school districts, said Hannah Eaves, a parent of a student at McKinley Elementary in Petaluma City Schools, parents turn to their personal networks to try to put the pieces together.

“It does feel kind of gossipy to say there are this many cases at this school,” she said. “It would be better if we weren’t having to feel gossipy about that kind of basic information.”

Some Sonoma County school districts have created dashboards showing the number of COVID-19 cases identified to date at each campus.

The Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified School District COVID-19 dashboard, for example, includes information not only about the number of overall cases, but whether they are linked to community or school-based spread.

The majority of the cases tracked by Sonoma County’s public health team — 59% —could not be attributed to any known source of transmission. Another 23%, or 19 cases, were linked to household or other social close contacts. Four were considered community exposures.

All school-based spread tracked by the Sonoma County Department of Health Services has been student to student, Rubin said in her presentation.

Rebecca McLeod-Marquez, a parent to two students in the West Sonoma County Union High School District and one student in the Gravenstein Elementary School District, said she was glad to watch the webinar for updated numbers.

“When the epidemiologists came on yesterday, I was like, ‘Yay thank you. Here’s what parents want to know,’” she said on Thursday.

McLeod-Marquez said she’s glad to see both school districts publish data dashboards that are publicly available. She still has questions about the use of COVID-19 monies that schools have received to fund mitigation measures.

“I’d love to know, are we updating our HVAC systems? How many cycles per hour?” she said. “This is not going to be our only time with respiratory illness, and so we have the opportunity to make these changes in the schools. It’d be great for us all to know what are we doing with the money.”

School district and county officials expressed confidence again this week in the mitigation measures schools have in place.

“We have 66,000 students in just our public schools in Sonoma County, and another 8,000 staff,” said Paul Gullixson, communications director for the county, during the webinar.

The number of staff and students who have tested positive so far, he said, “is a very small percentage.”

Eaves, who reached out to Petaluma City Schools’ COVID-19 coordinator with the suggestion of the dashboard, said she wants to honor how hard school staff are working to keep in-person learning safe.

“I don’t want to turn into one of those parents,” she said. “They’re dealing with so much already. I think we all feel bad about emailing.”

But the stakes are high, McLeod-Marquez said, and parents want to know directly from their local school and health officials what’s unfolding on campus.

“The more info we have, the better we can make decisions about what to do,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay.

Kaylee Tornay

Education, The Press Democrat

Learning is a transformative experience. Beyond that, it’s a right, under the law, for every child in this country. But we also look to local schools to do much more than teach children; they are tasked with feeding them, socializing them and offering skills in leadership and civics. My job is to help you make sense of K-12 education in Sonoma County and beyond.  

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