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Santa Rosa City Schools vow to be ready to open classrooms March 1

But it comes with at least one significant caveat: the number of coronavirus cases in Sonoma County must meet state thresholds for safety.|

Santa Rosa City Schools Superintendent Diann Kitamura vowed that classrooms will be ready to welcome the district’s youngest students by March 1 — a milestone that could mark the nearly one-year anniversary of all campuses in the district and across Sonoma County being shuttered in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

But the district’s plan to allow students to return to campus part-time, outlined Wednesday night, comes with at least one significant caveat: the number of coronavirus cases in Sonoma County must meet state thresholds for safety at a time when the virus is spreading more widely in the county than most areas of California.

Under Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Safe Schools for All plan, classrooms cannot reopen in counties reporting more than 28 new coronavirus cases a day per 100,000 people. Just 11 of California’s 58 counties met the standard on Jan. 1. As of Wednesday, Sonoma County’s case rate was 47.5.

"SRCS will be ready to open March 1. Whether we can or not is dependent upon this virus,“ Kitamura said. ”I want to assure parents, teachers, the community, we will be ready. We are going to continue the hard work to be ready March 1 and the moment this virus becomes under control, if that is even a way to put it, we’ll open school.“

The plan calls for bringing students in preschool through third grade, as well as English learners, special education students, and homeless and foster youth, back to the classroom part-time. The hybrid model, which mixes in-person instruction with online classes, would mirror the schedule students and teachers are now following in distance learning. Families have the option to choose to stay in remote instruction.

While the announcement was cheered by parents who have regularly called upon the district to be more aggressive in its reopening plans, the proposal also elicited immediate concern from some of the district’s approximately 900 teachers.

“People, in the same sentence are saying ’let’s go back when it’s safe’ but they are also saying ’let’s go back on March 1,’” Kim McKay, a kindergarten teacher at Hidden Valley Elementary School, said during the public comment section of Wednesday’s meeting. “I think we need to understand that a virus doesn’t go by a calendar and I don’t know that just giving an arbitrary day will make it safe for us to go back.”

“I feel like a lot of pressure is put on our school board and our cabinet and the teachers who have been working hard,” she said. “Everybody has been working twice as hard as usual. People are frustrated, I’m frustrated, parents are frustrated, kids are frustrated, but it’s a virus. We can’t push people to make a virus go away. It doesn’t make sense.”

But parents contend that officials have had a year to learn from the virus and watch how other districts have reopened classrooms safely. They urged district officials to use the less restrictive metrics under Newsom’s plan to bring students back.

“I am calling to ask you commit fully to a safe return to school as soon as the state allows us to do so,” said Sam Daw, father of a second grader in the district. “I believe the harm to our children and our community of not being in schools is tremendous and long-lasting. Children are not thriving despite all of the hard work of teachers and families to make this new system work. Distance learning is not working and I have seen this firsthand.”

Santa Rosa City Schools, Sonoma County’s largest district with nearly 16,000 students, will apply for state funds under Newsom’s $2 billion Safe Schools For All plan, which earmarks a minimum of $450 per student if districts apply by Feb. 1. The district will also launch an online dashboard to publish both readiness metrics as well as coronavirus case information.

But Santa Rosa Teachers Association President Will Lyon urged caution.

“I want to clarify that my understanding is we are going to be ready to open March — if the virus allows and the state allows — that is the goal. It doesn’t mean we are going to open no matter what,” he said. “I think that is an important distinction.“

Lyon has long contended that the approximately 900 members of the teachers union are ready and willing to return to the classroom “when it is safe.”

“Nobody is arguing that it’s better to be on Zoom,” he said of the distance learning platform. “We know students learn best, almost every single one of them, learn best when it’s in the classroom and that teachers teach best in the classroom. We also know it’s not safe right now. The virus is out of control and our district has not yet demonstrated the capacity to follow all of the safety procedures.“

The current working agreement between the district and teachers was crafted before the state’s color-coded coronavirus reopening plan was established. Under the old state guidance, districts were not allowed to return the general population to campus until counties reached the red tier, indicated by average new daily cases of between 4 to 7 per 100,000 residents.

The phased-in return plan unveiled Wednesday night, with preschool through third graders returning first, followed by fourth, fifth and sixth graders is also problematic, Lyon said.

“I’m uncomfortable as union president where a third grade teacher has to go or resign or lose pay, but a fourth grade teacher can stay out,” he said. “The way we bargained it in the summer, it was an injury to one was an injury to all.”

District officials and members of the teachers’ bargaining unit are expected to schedule talks in the coming days.

“I know our members are not going to go in if they don’t feel safe,“ Lyon said.

On Wednesday, Kitamura acknowledged that tension between the district and its two unions, the Santa Rosa Teachers Association and California School Employees Association. The district struck memorandums of understanding over summer with the two unions, which represent teachers and other types of school employees, including front office staff and custodians.

“We really are ahead of the game,” she said. “I am not concerned about February 1 in terms of our documentation and the plans. It’s not a concern. The one thing that could be a bit more complicated is our work together with SRTA and CSEA and getting those MOUs revisited.”

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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