Santa Rosa City Schools, teachers reach tentative deal on return-to-school plan

Santa Rosa City Schools is expanding its options for online learning in the fall as cases of coronavirus continue to rise locally and the prospect of starting the school year with in-person classes appears increasingly unlikely.|

Santa Rosa City Schools is expanding its options for online learning in the fall semester as cases of coronavirus continue to rise locally and the prospect of starting the school year with in-person classes appears increasingly unlikely.

Sonoma County’s largest school district is now slated to offer its approximately 16,000 students three main options for the first day of school Aug. 17: Full distance learning, a new project-based online program and a mixture of classroom and online lessons.

The school board last week approved a draft plan to resume classes but is expected to take up a final vote on July 22, presuming the approximately 900-member Santa Rosa Teachers Association approves the agreement in voting that runs until July 21.

“I think we have a good chance to pass it with a strong number,” SRTA president Will Lyon said.

That said, the plan is an evolving document that has changed shape even in recent days, much in the same way an increase in virus cases locally has changed the landscape — yet again — of life and business in Sonoma County.

Families will be given three primary options to educate their children. The first, a hybrid plan, would bring students on campus for shortened days in two-day blocks — either Mondays and Tuesdays or Thursdays and Fridays — and place them in online classes the remaining three days. The second, full-time distance learning, would involve online classes only. The third, a new option dubbed “Learning House,” is also an exclusively online program using project-based classes in which students work with peers and teachers from various schools.

Letters are slated to go out to families this week asking for their selection. The tentative deadline to submit their choice is Aug. 1.

“We still want parents to choose,” Superintendent Diann Kitamura said.

Teachers, too, are being surveyed to better understand how staffing should be structured.

The hybrid model is expected to be the default plan approved by the board next week. Still, within that program, classes could still be held entirely online should Kitamura make that call. Her recommendation on that issue is scheduled to be announced Friday.

Both distance learning and Learning House are entirely online options. Students that choose distance learning will have a day structured similarly to a traditional school day, but the classes will be led virtually by teachers from their home campus.

In the Learning House option, curriculum will be project-based and students could be put into a cohort with peers from various campuses as well as teachers from different schools.

How students will be partnered with teachers or other students is unclear until surveys about student and family preference are returned to the district. The Learning House option is meant, in part, to address an as-yet-unknown disparity between the number of teachers who seek medical exemptions allowing them to teach online classes exclusively and the number of students who also opt not to return to school campuses. The formula allows the district to match students with teachers not connected to the student’s original campus.

But for some, the introduction of a wholly new concept is muddying the already complex return to school waters.

“I’m full of way more questions than answers,” Margie Bradylong, chairperson of the Maria Carrillo High School math department, said of some of the more prescriptive elements of the hybrid plan and some of the as-yet-unvetted details of the Learning House plan.

“Personally, as a teacher, when I look at the schedules, I don’t know what good learning looks like,” she said.

That said, Bradylong, who is a member of the union’s executive committee, is in full support of the agreement now being voted on by teachers. And she’s also in support of an accompanying resolution that asks the board of trustees to wait until Sonoma County has 14 consecutive days without a new virus infection before returning students and staff to the classroom.

“It’s a ‘This is what we would like,’” she said. “It’s not a ‘We won’t go back,’ but a ‘Please heed our evidence and our desire.’”

“I cannot imagine the devastation if people were to get super sick or people were to die. The ramification of that makes me not able to breathe,” she said.

Sonoma County’s rising caseload is not unique, nor is Santa Rosa City Schools’ wrestling with a return-to-school plan. On Monday, California’s two largest public school districts — Los Angeles and San Diego — announced their combined 825,000 students would start the school year with online-only classes. Hours after that announcement, Gov. Gavin Newsom extended the closure of bars and indoor dining at restaurants while ordering places of worship, hair salons and gyms closed in most places in the state.

The moves come as return-to-school plans have become increasingly divisive.

On Friday, the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association and School Superintendents Association issued a joint statement on return-to-school plans and the Trump administration’s push for children to go back to the classroom.

“Returning to school is important for the healthy development and well-being of children, but we must pursue reopening in a way that is safe for all students, teachers and staff. Science should drive decision-making on safely reopening schools. Public health agencies must make recommendations based on evidence, not politics,” the statement reads. “We should leave it to health experts to tell us when the time is best to open up school buildings, and listen to educators and administrators to shape how we do it.”

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

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