Santa Rosa City Schools targets April return for both elementary, secondary students

Both elementary and high school students will return to campus for a hybrid form of in-person learning in April under a plan OK’d by the board of trustees.|

The largest school district in Sonoma County is expected to return all of its students to a hybrid form of in-person learning in April under a plan approved by its board of trustees Wednesday night.

Santa Rosa City Schools adopted a resolution to return its approximately 5,000 elementary-aged students to classrooms in a part-time capacity on April 1 and 2, and its nearly 11,000 secondary students starting on April 26 and 29. The district had previously marked March 1 as its goal date.

The move is contingent upon Sonoma County advancing out of the purple tier, the most restrictive stage of the state’s color-coded coronavirus reopening plan, indicating the most widespread transmission of the virus.

Once the county reaches the red tier, the rules for returning staff and students to campuses change and the district no longer need county health department approval of its return-to-school plan. Revisions to the district’s original proposal are being reviewed by the county health department.

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.

‘Excited to present this to the board’

“We are excited to present this to the board as a resolution to move this forward and to getting our kids back into school,” Superintendent Diann Kitamura said after unveiling the district’s third version of its return-to-school plan.

“We hear everything that has been sent to us, said to us, emailed to us and recognize what our students have been going through, what our parents have been going through and what our teachers have been going through,” she said. “We need to move forward. We need to move forward.”

District officials were slated to meet with members of the Santa Rosa Teachers Association on Thursday as part of ongoing negotiations over how and when a return to school will happen. On Wednesday night, SRTA President Will Lyon signaled optimism about both the negotiations and the prospects of returning thousands of students to the classroom nearly one year after all campuses in Sonoma County were shuttered.

“The shift to the target date of April 1 is a welcome shift,” he said. “That looks like a much more realistic date to hit all of our safety guidelines.”

“We still may not make it, but I just wanted to reiterate that that was a welcome shift,” he said. “There are a lot of things going right. There are gazillion things left to do and we have to recognize that school is going to look different. But we are going to get back into those classrooms and we are going to keep our kids safe and we are going to help them connect to each other and their teachers.”

‘We have already gone through so much trauma’

The news was greeted with a mix of relief and gratitude from many parents, along with lingering worry among teachers who remain concerned that plans are not yet firmed up.

“Thanks for the progress that was made. It’s not perfect but it’s progress,” said Donna Prak, mother of three kids in the district. “I hope it doesn’t get changed like it was for March. … These kids deserve to go back to school and our teachers deserve to be safe. They are working really hard already and there is a lot that needs to happen in a short amount of time.”

Veteran elementary teacher Susan Fries asked community members to understand that a return to school does not necessarily mean a return to the classroom experience that kids remember from last spring and prior.

The widespread shift in class rosters that will be necessary to match students who choose to come back in a hybrid format with teachers who are able to instruct them will mean wholesale changes in classroom rosters and teaching assignments — with approximately two months left in the school year.

“I just want to express some real concerns about the way that this is going to roll out with our classes being shuffled and our students changing,” she said, estimating that about half the kids on her fourth grade roster will be moved to a different class. “It’s just unconscionable to me because we have already gone through so much trauma and so much strain. … These students have built relationships, believe it or not.”

But parents continued to urge board members and district officials to press on in efforts to return kids to campus.

“For me the return to school this spring isn't about academic progress. It’s about teachers, students and families learning, and in some cases, relearning how to go to school,” said Patrick Bailey, father of a student in the district.

‘The plan for the fall is full in-person instruction’

Also in the discussion Wednesday night was a firm timeline for decisions on the 2021-22 school year. Board members debated a deadline for deciding what the classroom structure and schedule will look like when the new school year starts in August.

Somewhat complicating the discussion is Kitamura’s impending retirement. The superintendent has announced her retirement effective June 30, so there was some concern the new as-yet-hired superintendent would walk into unfinished business if a plan is not locked in before Kitamura’s departure. Schedules and start-of-school plans will be presented to the board for a vote by June 23, she said.

“The plan for the fall is full in-person instruction five days a week, that’s it,” she said. “To me, the default is you are back in school as regular school, five days a week every day all day. What you will be adjusting for at the time is the situation around COVID.”

At the close of yet another hourslong, emotional debate, Area 6 Trustee Stephanie Manieri acknowledged the long road various people in the district have traveled, but she too sounded a note of optimism Wednesday night that a return to campus is coming.

“We are almost there. We can’t lose hope,” she said.

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

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.