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Parents, students rally in Santa Rosa for schools to reopen

About 100 parents and students rallied in Santa Rosa’s Old Courthouse Square Thursday afternoon to reopen schools.|

Frustrated, Jamie Fowler of Petaluma pulled her daughter out of her transitional kindergarten class this week and reenrolled her in preschool. Friday is her first day of her second stint in preschool.

“It’s just not making sense, her doing Zoom and learning what she needs to learn in (transitional kindergarten). It’s just not making sense for us to do it at home the way we are,“ she said.

But where Fowler gets stuck, is why her daughter’s new preschool is allowed to operate under Sonoma County’s coronavirus health and safety protocols, but her local school, Liberty Elementary School, remains closed.

Fowler was among the approximately 100 parents and students who rallied in Santa Rosa’s Old Courthouse Square Thursday afternoon. They waved signs with such phrases as “I miss my school” and chanted “No more Zoom!” Rally attendees and advocates for the reopening of schools said they are essential businesses and ought to be open for students.

“I do have concerns, but I also feel like we can’t stop living our lives. Our kids can’t stop going to school and missing out on their education,” Fowler said.

The event came on the heels of Santa Rosa City Schools’ decision Wednesday night to stick with online-only classes through December. That vote, by the largest district in the county, was seen by some Thursday as a bellwether for other districts to make similar calls.

Citing requirements that districts — at least until November — provide their own coronavirus testing system as well as contact tracers, Santa Rosa officials said the burdens of reopening are insurmountable for a district that serves approximately 15,700 students. A number of trustees indicated that while Wednesday’s vote was for distance learning to remain in place through the first semester, with the reality of the virus and of health and safety policies put in place that districts must follow, a return to the classroom might not happen in the current school year.

“Usually our district follows suit, so I’m here to just say my right as a parent. I feel like we should vote, I feel like we should have an opinion on whether our kids should go back to school,” said Anna Scarbrough of Santa Rosa whose son is in third grade in the Piner-Olivet Union School District, a feeder district to Santa Rosa City Schools.

For Scarbrough, the virus is real, but so are the precautions she takes with her family.

“I have concerns. It’s out there, it’s very real,“ she said. ”You can only do so much. You wash your hands, you sanitize things, you do what you can for your kids and your family, you stay at home as much as possible, you do what is asked of you in public as far as wearing masks. But for the most part if you are going to get it, then you quarantine yourself. I can’t stop it, I can only do what I can.“

No schools — public or private — can fully open so long as Sonoma County remains in the purple or “widespread” tier of COVID-19 spread unless they receive a waiver. The waivers apply to transitional kindergarten through sixth grade and must be approved by the county’s health office. They can take effect after 14 consecutive days of the county being in the red or “substantial” spread tier.

The state has also granted permission for schools to offer in-person instruction immediately, but under strict conditions including small cohorts of students, with the expectation that special education, English language learners and other students at high risk for learning loss will be targeted.

As private businesses, preschools are subject to different regulations from what schools face.

On Thursday, the county office of public health was slated to begin considering waivers. In a letter issued Monday to district administrators, Sonoma County Superintendent of Schools Steve Herrington and Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase outlined the criteria schools and districts must meet in order to gain approval for a waiver to reopen. But the letter also urged caution and highlighted a recent outbreak of COVID-19 cases linked with preschools and child care facilities.

Additionally, schools and districts must prove they can provide and pay for regular coronavirus testing as well as contact tracing in order to reopen.

None of that, frankly, matters to Cardinal Newman High School junior Gianna Ratto. She’s been locked into a largely computer-driven school life since mid-March and she said she’s worn out.

“I really just want to go back to school. Being on Zoom is really emotionally draining. I just sit there on the computer for six hours a day and I don’t get to see my friends,“ she said. ”I know that it’s a risk to go back, but I’d be willing to do anything. I’d wear the mask, I’ll follow every social distancing rule, I just want some sense of normalcy again.“

For Kelley Sbarbaro, Santa Rosa City School’s vote Wednesday night to push distance learning through December as well as the discussion of perhaps making the call to stay online through June and not consider even a hybrid plan with small cohorts in staggered shifts was more than disappointing. It felt like a betrayal.

Sbarbaro, a mother of two Montgomery High School students, was a member of the district’s 200-person community committee that worked on the district’s 91-page return-to-school plan.

“We spent the whole summer in committees coming up with the ... plan,” she said. “Now all of a sudden they say, ’We can’t do it’?”

Fowler and others gathered Thursday said those families who want their children to stay home have clearly been given that option, but she wants something for her kids, too.

“Why can’t we come up with options?” she said. “Let’s figure out how we can get through this, because this is not working. This is not working.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the waiver process.

You can reach Staff Writer Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield.

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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