More schools, districts in Sonoma County seek permission to return to classroom
Twenty-four schools and districts in Sonoma County have submitted COVID-19 safety plans for county review, mounting the largest effort to return thousands of students to campus since schools across the county were shuttered in mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic.
But many schools have no clear timetable for resuming classroom instruction, the result of a complex process to win local and state approval to reopen. Deficiencies in safety plans must be addressed before they advance to the state, a step that has the potential to extend the timeline of local review.
The plans, which must outline specific health and safety measures at individual schools and across districts, are a state-mandated piece of the larger application for every district seeking to return to in-person instruction. The Sonoma County Department of Public Health is tasked with reviewing and approving the plans before forwarding them to the state.
The county’s approval rubric has 98 categories including how hallways are divided for traffic, whether drinking fountains are shut off and how movement will be separated in places like restrooms and locker rooms. They cover everything from how schools will educate families to what happens when a student refuses to wear a mask. Each category is scored either “acceptable,” “minor deficiency” or “major deficiency.”
The county Department of Public Health has seven working days to approve a safety plan, but the clock to reopening stops every time a plan is sent back with a question, said Steve Herrington, Sonoma County superintendent of schools.
Once approved by the county, the plan is sent to the state but schools in the purple tier can reopen immediately, according to county officials.
Nearly 200 school officials attended a videoconference Thursday to go over questions and address concerns about the various safety plans required for campuses. The number of those in attendance, as well as the number of questions, pointed to the both the complexity and importance of the process, Herrington said.
On Tuesday, Mark West Union School District began bringing small groups of students back to campus to meet outside with counselors while giving parents and school officials a chance to see how protocols work in reality.
The protocols mirrored those in the district plan being considered by county public health, but were introduced with small cohorts of sixth graders Tuesday afternoon, Superintendent Ron Calloway said. There was no classroom instruction involved in the exercise, he said. The same protocol will be followed Thursday with fifth graders, and fourth graders on Friday, moving into lower grades next week, he said.
The small-scale rollout emphasizes some adjustments to drop-off and pickup routines and other logistical changes from pre-COVID-19 structures, and coincides with district teachers getting the first dose of the coronavirus vaccine, Calloway said.
“We are taking our steps toward hybrid,” he said, as the district moves toward a schedule of classes blending online and in-person instruction.
Ten schools in Sonoma County that had previously received waivers to offer in-person instruction have been required to submit new plans to the county and state. However, they are allowed to continue operating throughout the process.
The Spring Hill School, a private campus serving preschoolers through eighth graders in Petaluma that had not previously received a waiver, has already had its safety plan approved by the county.
County health officers must sign off on school safety plans while Sonoma County remains in the purple tier, the most restrictive in the state’s color-coded coronavirus reopening plan and an indication of widespread transmission of the virus. When virus rates drop enough for the county to advance into the red tier — seven or fewer new daily cases per 100,000 residents — schools no longer need to submit their safety plans for county approval. However, schools still must complete and publicly post their safety plans. Sonoma County had an adjusted rate of 13.8 new daily cases per 100,000 residents on Tuesday.
Hitting the red tier would also mean grades seven through 12 are allowed to return, Herrington said. But the worry among some school officials has been that middle and high school schedules will be more complicated with significantly more movement between peers, classrooms and teachers. Health and safety guidance recommends stable groups of students and teachers that do not intermix.
The falling case rates in Sonoma County and the rising number of schools and districts submitting return-to-campus plans comes as the Sonoma County Office of Education prepares to expand efforts to vaccinate teachers and other school staff. This week, its vaccination clinic received double the amount of Moderna vaccine — 2,200 doses — as it was allotted in its first week of operation last week.
The eventual goal is 4,000 doses a week, Herrington said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this story was unclear about the timeline for reopening. Schools in counties that are in the purple tier can open immediately upon approval by county public health officials.
You can reach Staff Writer Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or email@example.com. On Twitter @benefield.
Columnist, The Press Democrat
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