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Rohnert Park billboard calling for ’missing students’ roils school reopening discussions

A group of local parents pushing for Sonoma County schools to immediately reopen have purchased a controversial advertisement flashing from a giant LED billboard overlooking Highway 101 in Rohnert Park, angering some educators while drawing praise from families who have reached the breaking point with distance learning.

“MISSING: ALL CA STUDENTS,” reads the sign, in the style of a poster for a missing person. “Last seen: 3/13/20,” is emblazoned over a background image of an empty classroom. The date harks back to the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Sonoma County school districts shut down campuses and placed all students in online classes to slow the spread of the virus.

“I don’t want to hear the word ’resilient’ anymore as it relates to my children,” said Andrea Quartarolo, who over the last two weeks spearheaded the effort to raise funds and create the advertisement for the billboard that now greets drivers traveling both north and southbound on Highway 101 near Golf Course Drive.

When her children and their peers began remote school last March, she said, they were hopeful and motivated. Her family saw the need for precautions about COVID-19, but had believed a return to the classroom was still within reach for the following school year.

By now, however, “they are not thriving,” Quartarolo said. “They don’t care. They don’t want to do their homework. It’s a battle every day.”

Parents and community members such as Quartarolo who donated money to get the sign up on the digital billboard said they see it as an opportunity to call attention to their children’s experience, highlighting what they have missed during nearly a year of pandemic-altered schooling. But to some teachers and school staff, the message seemed to both demean their efforts to continue educating students throughout the pandemic, and dismiss their concerns about the safety of returning to the classroom without proper precautions in place.

“I consider that sign a cheap shot,” said Will Lyon, president of the Santa Rosa Teachers Association. “It flies in the face of those 12-hour days everybody’s doing.”

“It’s a distraction from the work that we have to do,” said Tracy Smith, superintendent of the Rincon Valley Union School District. “There’s only been so much we can control at the district level, and ultimately we have to get approved by the local public health office (to return to campus).”

Quartarolo declined to say how much money she had to raise in order to place the advertisement for two weeks, but said she reached the amount less than 24 hours after posting the fundraiser online. Monday morning, the amount shown on the group’s GoFundMe page stood at just over $2,800, close to enough money to keep the display up for an additional two weeks, Quartarolo said on Sunday evening.

She said she didn’t intend for the sign to disparage the work of teachers. She switched to working part-time in order to support her two kids with their schoolwork this year, she said, and has seen how her kids need more than just her help. Teachers remain, she said, “an integral part of society.”

“I love our district, love our principal and our school,” Quartarolo said, adding that she has volunteered and donated to her children’s school in the past. But to those offended by the sign’s message, she said, “I say to them, I feel disrespected as a parent that our children’s voices have been quieted.”

In each of Sonoma County’s 40 school districts, administrators, union leaders and classified staff are continuing to hash out either the details of safety plans tied to reopening campuses. It’s complicated work, especially considering that schools continue to be subject to the state’s reopening framework.

Sonoma County officials said Friday that about 30 schools and districts had submitted COVID-19 safety plans for review so far.

Sonoma County has been unable to advance from the purple tier, the most restrictive in the state’s color-coded reopening plan implemented last August. Under current guidance, schools can bring back students in transitional kindergarten through the sixth grade even while in the purple tier, as long as cases remain below a rate of 25 new coronavirus cases per day per 100,000 people.

Lyon said schools in other counties offering hybrid instruction, including time on campus, are located in counties that moved into less restrictive tiers at some earlier point in the pandemic. That’s true of Marin, Mendocino and Napa counties, for example.

If a county opened schools after it advanced into the less restrictive red tier, for example, then moved back into the purple tier, schools were allowed to stay open under the state’s guidance.

“It’s an apples to oranges situation,” Lyon said.

Lyon, who as a union president participates in ongoing negotiations with Santa Rosa City Schools leadership, said staff have been working to perfect a plan that will involve crucial safety protocols for teachers.

Members in recent weeks have expressed a willingness to be flexible about the timing of their vaccinations before returning to the classroom, with some open to the idea of returning even before receiving their second vaccination dose, Lyon said. But the district will still need to complete other tasks to keep teachers and students safe, including plans for air filtration systems, cleaning and social distancing before a return would happen.

Diann Kitamura, superintendent of Santa Rosa City Schools, last week confirmed the district would miss its March 1 goal to begin reopening campuses to young students. The district has not announced a new target date as negotiations continue.

“We’re doing everything we can to get it right,” Lyon said. “It’s unfair to characterize it (as though) we haven’t done anything.”

In Rincon Valley, work between the teachers union and administration has been “extremely positive,” Smith said. The district is eyeing a March 8 return to classrooms, if the county has reached the red tier by then, she said.

Parents pushing for a speedy reopening, such as Nicole Vice, said that state and county officials are also responsible for a slow return to classrooms among Sonoma County public schools.

“The leadership is not well — that we’re still stuck in purple after all of these months,” Vice said.

Both Vice and Quartarolo are part of a group called Rally to Open Sonoma County Schools, which organized at least one protest with a similar message in September.

Quartarolo borrowed the missing poster-style design from a concept started by Jeffrey Zachreson, a Roseville accounting analyst who is putting up billboards in several other California counties. In the days since the advertisement went up on the billboard, which is owned by Santa-Rosa-based company Veale Outdoor Advertising, the group has also begun to produce smaller versions for lawn signs, which businesses and residents have begun to display.

Tom Jackson, general manager of Veale Outdoor Advertising, didn’t have any comment about the content of the sign beyond saying that it falls within the company’s agreement with the City of Rohnert Park, which owns the land the sign is on. He declined to disclose the advertising rate charged to Quartarolo’s group.

“It has done the job the group wanted it to, which is to help move the conversation forward,” he 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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