Santa Rosa school board trustee asks families managing distance learning to keep students home
It’s a bold ask. Santa Rosa City Schools trustee Jenni Klose does not particularly want to make it and yet she has, publicly, in successive school board meetings.
Her request? The most veteran board member of Sonoma County’s largest school district is asking parents to keep their kids home, if they are able, when schools reopen classrooms for in-person learning. At least for now.
“What I’m asking is not easy,” Klose said. “Right now we are all asked to make some sacrifices for our own family’s health and the community’s health and well-being.”
No schools in Sonoma County are permitted to open for in-person learning while the county remains on the state’s COVID-19 watchlist. But even as districts are preparing to open the year with 100% distance learning, many of the county’s 40 individual school districts are also readying hybrid plans — typically two days on, three days off — that they will move to when given the OK by public health officials.
It is the hybrid option that Klose is asking families whose children have support and even an affinity for distance learning to consider forgoing for the time-being.
"I definitely want the students to be back learning if they can, but I want them to be healthy,“ she said. ”We have 1,600 staff members and I have a hard time feeling OK with sending them into a space with a known risk.“
The more families that choose distance learning for a longer period of time, the more staff — teachers, secretaries, custodians — can either do their work from home or do it in the presence of fewer students, she said.
Those choices are being made now. The families of Santa Rosa City School’s 16,000 students are being asked to choose between three different learning models for the start of the 2020-21 school year: distance learning, an online-only option meant to loosely replicate a typical school schedule; Learning House, an online project-based curriculum that will link students and teachers from various campuses in smaller learning groups; and distance learning with an option to move to a mixture of online and in-person classes in October if safety permits.
Families have until Monday to choose.
Klose encourages families — especially those who are able to work from home and guide student learning and whose kids did well working remotely — to prioritize either Learning House or entirely distance learning for at least the first semester of the school year.
But Klose acknowledged the need for many families to see their children back in the classroom, either because it allows a parent to return to work or improves the education experience of a child who is not thriving at home. For weeks, parents have logged into school board meetings to criticize the hybrid model and demand a full five-day schedule.
Santa Rosa Teachers Association President Will Lyon said the request is akin to other areas in which people are being asked to act for the community good by wearing masks, staying 6 feet apart and not congregating.
“We are asking schools to do way too much,” he said. “Jen Klose is saying ’Here are our limited resources, here’s what we can do, if you don’t need the space, leave (it) for someone who does.’ That is a good ask. That is a reasonable ask.”
The concerns raised about remote learning — learning loss, disconnection from social safety nets, lack of access to child care — are borne disproportionately by students of color and families who live in poverty, which are often one and the same.
“I think this is an equity issue. I think that it is not just about the numbers,” Klose said.
In Santa Rosa City Schools, campuses with the highest rates of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch are the same campuses with the highest number of Latino students. District staff said it was those students and those campuses that struggled the most in the spring when schools shuttered and kids were sent home to learn.
In Sonoma County, nearly 9 of every 10 positive COVID-19 cases in those younger than 18 are Latino. Among adults, Latinos represent 67% of positive cases despite making up just 27% of the population.
Public health officials point to dramatic overrepresentation among Latinos in cases in which patients have listed their jobs as manufacturing, agricultural work, construction, food and beverage production, janitorial and public works. The situation is made worse by overcrowded living quarters, lack of health coverage and jobs in industries that don’t offer paid sick leave, potentially prompting some to show up at work when they are ill.
When all schools in Sonoma County abruptly moved to distance learning in the spring, Santa Rosa City Schools provided approximately 4,000 Chromebooks and 1,000 Wi-Fi hotspots to families who would otherwise not have had access to lessons.
At Abraham Lincoln Elementary School where 93% of students are Latino and 3 out of 4 students qualify for a free or reduced price lunch, 68% of the student body received a Chromebook and 28% a hotspot — the highest rate among elementary campuses. At Cook Middle School, 51% of students received Chromebooks and 8% got hotspots, the highest rate among middle schools. Eighty-six percent of the student body is Latino and 66% qualify for a free or reduced price lunch. Elsie Allen High, a campus where 82% of students are Latino and nearly 6 out of 10 meet the federal definition for living in poverty, 26% of the student body received Chromebooks and 7% got hotspots.
The families least able to bear the burden of guiding their children through distance learning should have first shot at coming back to campus, Klose said. And those are the same families who are likely to need access to daily lunch and breakfast programs, child care and other social services that now fall largely to school districts to provide.
“Every single one of those risks is greater for our most vulnerable,” she said.
"We need to really be honest and say that all of our options are dangerous in one way or another,“ she said. ”We don’t have great options unless they give us a ton of money, give us more staff and more space so we can spread each other out.“
Lyon said Klose’s request is one that should be considered by families that can make it work.
“She is just trying to be honest about our resources,” he said.
You can reach Staff Writer Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @benefield.
Columnist, The Press Democrat
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