Santa Rosa, Cotati-Rohnert Park middle and high schoolers return to campus

The first day back to campus in more than a year involved health assessments, temperature checks and, of course, masks.|

In Santa Rosa and Cotati-Rohnert Park, thousands of students returned Monday to their high school and middle school campuses for the first day of widespread in-person learning in more than a year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It feels refreshing,” said Mark Mantoani, a Piner High School science teacher who was leading six students from his first-period health sciences and biotechnology class in an in-person lab activity Monday. “You can feel the kids are excited to do something different.”

Piner welcomed back about 250 students on its first day of hybrid learning, all of whom were required to complete a health screening before entering campus. Those same students will return Tuesday for two more school periods and then attend classes remotely the rest of the week. The other group of students will make their initial return Thursday and Friday.

“The number one word in my mind is pure joy,” said Piner Principal Stacy Desideri.

Across campus, students were in class doing biology lab and culinary arts work, even stretching into yoga poses. In between first and second period, students headed outside to talk with friends and pick up one of the free "brunches" available on tables: an orange, a Danish-style pastry and a carton of milk.

Students return at Rancho Cotate

At Rancho Cotate High School in Rohnert Park, slightly fewer than 600 of the school’s approximately 1,470 students made the return to campus.

Masked-up students were asked to fill out a health assessment on their phones before they reached campus and once there, passed under a temperature sensitive camera. Students who registered a high temperature — many of whom were simply wearing hats just before the reading — were pulled aside and reassessed.

Selected seniors, some of them carrying clipboards holding a small stack of campus maps, were on hand to direct students to classrooms.

While hundreds of students did opt to stay in distance learning through the end of the year, Gabe Torres, a sophomore, had no doubt he wanted to come back when classrooms reopened.

“We get to see all of our friends again but it’s kind of different because we haven’t been here in a long time. I am very excited for it,” he said. “It’s also in-person learning. I think it’s much more effective so that is also something to be excited about … I’ve been looking forward to coming back since it shut down last year.”

Rancho Cotate’s structure differs from that of Santa Rosa City Schools in that students at Rancho will attend in-person classes for three hours four days a week while Wednesdays are set aside for Zoom lessons.

“The challenge in crafting the schedule has been to deal with dual responsibilities of teaching online and in person,” Principal Louis Ganzler said. “We are trying to craft a compromise where we are attending to the students who are coming to us in person but also delivering the same level of education that we have been delivering for people online.”

The Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified School District invested in cameras that track a teacher’s movements and that have six different microphones, Ganzler said. Ideally, this allows instructors to move about a classroom — from a white board to a student’s desk — in a way that students at home can easily see, hear and participate.

Five students were attending Anna Leemon’s chemistry class in person Monday morning, with many more logging on from home. As Leemon took attendance and asked students how they were feeling, the dominant answer from both students in the room and at home was “tired.”

Constant adjustments

Teachers at Piner also were attending to their students at home and those newly returned to campus, though the setups enabling them to do so varied in each classroom. Kat Jorgenson, a special education teacher, used a wide angle lens that could capture her movements at the front of the class, along with microphones and speakers to enable all the students to hear each other speaking.

In Mantoani’s classroom, help from student teacher Ashley Sweet enabled both sets of students to learn from the lab exercise, which involved identifying blood types. While Mantoani offered guidance to the six students working at the desks in the lab, Sweet bent over her own blood typing kit, in view of an iPad camera that displayed her work on Zoom to the 14 or more students at home.

Nael Tesfamariam, a freshman, said he preferred being able to do hands-on work for his science class.

“Online school hasn’t done a whole lot for me,” he said.

Desideri praised those on campus for their willingness to make constant adjustments throughout a year of uncertainty.

“The courage of these teachers and students to jump into something new is just amazing,” she said.

Custodial staff remained on a constant cycle of cleaning and disinfecting: As students sat in their classrooms, an occasional whirring sound drifted through the hallways. It was Antonio Chavez, a custodian, walking through with an electrostatic sprayer, carefully distributing disinfectant on doorknobs, in hallways and in bathrooms from a backpack tank.

In Dustin Friel’s symphonic band class at Rancho Cotate, seven students sat outside, all spaced 6 feet apart. Students on wind instruments were double-masked, with specially designed masks that allowed them to blow into their instruments when the group played, but snap their mask shut with internal magnets when the playing stopped.

“Take a break, everybody seal,” Friel instructed them at the close of one exercise.

Friel acknowledged that Monday was “kind of a unique day.”

Interest in the hybrid model at Rancho had lagged initially but surged significantly when the four-day week schedule was announced, Ganzler said. Classrooms are currently structured to accommodate 6 feet of spacing between students and teachers, but negotiations are under way to reduce the spacing to three feet, a move that would essentially clear the way for close to a full return.

Such an adjustment is unlikely in Santa Rosa in the remaining five weeks of the school year. Superintendent Diann Kitamura, who paid a visit to Piner on Monday, said that having smaller numbers in the classroom at once can help teachers more directly meet students’ needs as the year finishes up. The district also is planning robust programs for the summer to expand opportunities for students to engage with outdoor education and more — bolstered by federal and state relief funds aimed at helping mitigate learning loss.

“We’re thrilled we could do this,” Kitamura said of the reopening. “All staff made this possible, to get our kids back.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or On Twitter @ka_tornay. Reach Staff Writer Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or On Twitter @benefield.

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