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Santa Rosa City Schools preparing to welcome thousands back to campuses

Affixed to the wall behind Samantha Kim’s desk in her fifth and sixth grade combination classroom at Steele Lane Elementary School is a scroll of brown butcher paper. Each week, Kim writes a new quote to represent the week ahead. At the close of each week, Kim typically allows one student to cut the saying free and take it home.

The quote Kim chose for this week, when students will return to not only her classroom but elementary school classrooms throughout Santa Rosa City Schools, is fitting: “Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly.”

“It’s been a really hard year for everybody in a multitude of ways,” Kim said Wednesday. “This is the first ray of hope.”

“This” is the return of thousands of students to Santa Rosa City Schools elementary school classrooms Thursday morning. Students in transitional kindergarten through sixth grade in Sonoma County’s largest school district will walk onto campus for the first time since heading home for spring break more than a year ago, never to return. Until now.

After months of being mired in the purple tier, the most restrictive in the state’s coronavirus reopening plan, Sonoma County is now in the red tier, which allows for more widespread return to campus, albeit with significant safety protocols in place. That advance from purple to red has led many of the county’s 40 school districts to reopen their doors to thousands of students. As many as 20,000 students could be back on campus at least part time by Friday, the Sonoma County Office of Education estimated. That number is expected to reach 40,000 by April 15.

Students at the Mark West and Rincon Valley districts returned to campus Monday.

Santa Rosa City Schools’ returning students will be divided into two groups. The first group will attend class on Monday and Tuesday and do distance learning Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. The second group will be in distance learning Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and will be on campus Thursday and Friday. First through sixth graders will attend school from 8 a.m. to 12:20 p.m.

“I’m ready for this,” Kristy Sterling, first grade teacher at Steele Lane, said as she took a break from last minute prep work to her room. “I’m excited. I miss my kids. I miss hearing them laugh and talk and get excited.”

Sterling acknowledged that with the hybrid schedule, her class essentially becomes two separate classes starting Thursday. To maintain relationships already forged, she is considering asking her students to write notes or draw pictures for classmates assigned to different groups.

Samantha Kim sits at her Zoom station, where she has spent her entire year teaching fifth and sixth graders, as she prepares for in-person teaching to begin tomorrow at Steele Lane Elementary School in Santa Rosa. Photo taken Wednesday, March 31, 2021. (Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)
Samantha Kim sits at her Zoom station, where she has spent her entire year teaching fifth and sixth graders, as she prepares for in-person teaching to begin tomorrow at Steele Lane Elementary School in Santa Rosa. Photo taken Wednesday, March 31, 2021. (Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

Teachers and school officials have acknowledged that things will look different for kids when they come back. Some classrooms have plexiglass partitions on desks. Work stations are fewer and spread 6 feet apart. Air purifiers are in every room. Maintenance crews have deep cleaning misting tools strapped to their backs as they make their way down hallways.

And there are color-coded arrows and footprints painted on the ground denoting where students in different stable groups can move to use the bathroom or reach the playground or eat their snacks — all to keep commingling to a bare minimum.

Supplies that were once easily shared between students now must be kept to individuals. On Wednesday, Sterling opened a big plastic box filled with individually wrapped treats as well as a slew of brightly colored bubble wands. She had to buy the kind that didn’t require kids to blow on them.

Months of talk, debate, preparation and even physical changes on campuses have gone into this moment.

“I have been on the phone with five principals today just checking in,” first-year Steele Lane Principal Amber Williams said. “We are just all hands on deck for each other.”

When Steele Lane teachers and staff gathered for the first time on Monday to ready both themselves and the campus for the return of students, it was emotional, she said.

Teachers and staff filled the walkways and playground with welcoming messages written in chalk in preparation for in-person teaching to begin Thursday at Steele Lane Elementary School, in Santa Rosa on Wednesday, March 31, 2021. (Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)
Teachers and staff filled the walkways and playground with welcoming messages written in chalk in preparation for in-person teaching to begin Thursday at Steele Lane Elementary School, in Santa Rosa on Wednesday, March 31, 2021. (Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

“I felt like we had arrived,” she said. “We just stood there for a second. I got chills, I got emotional. So much work has gone into this.”

At Steele Lane, 85% of families opted to send their students back for the hybrid program. District wide, that percentage is about 75%.

“Kids are going to walk in through the front gates, and the energy is just going to rise here at Steele Lane, and it’s going to bring this whole level of hope to our entire school community,” Williams said.

For Kim, Thursday is likely to have the emotional hallmarks of the first day of school, only amplified. She was looking forward to reading Harry Potter aloud with her kids near her, not on a computer screen, and having kids carve out their own space in her classroom.

And she was looking forward to just seeing their faces, even behind masks, in person.

“I can say ’I’ll see you next week’ for the first time this school year,” Kim said “That’s really exciting.”

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

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