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Sonoma County health officer says schools not ready to resume classroom instruction

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As COVID-19 continues spreading in Sonoma County, the top local public health official said schools should continue teaching online until administrators can prove they can safely reopen campuses.

At this point, the county’s 40 public school districts as well as private schools remain blocked from resuming classroom instruction because the county remains in the most restrictive stage of California’s new reopening plan for its 58 counties.

As a result, local schools have been spared massive coronavirus outbreaks that have recently plagued schools and colleges in many states, since they began a new school year by returning to classrooms.

Once Sonoma County sufficiently curbs further virus transmission to advance to the next reopening stage, schools could reopen transitional kindergarten through sixth grade classrooms, if they are granted a waiver from county Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase. As of Friday, 12 unidentified local schools have submitted waiver requests and county public health staff are reviewing their proposed plans to restart in-person classes.

“If a school has a really good plan and a way of responding to (coronavirus) cases among students or among staff, then we may consider the waiver for opening,” Mase said Friday, in her most detailed public remarks about schools potentially bringing back students to classrooms anytime soon. “But for right now, I think we should continue distance learning to the extent that we can.”

All of the county’s public school districts and private schools closed campuses in March, after the coronavirus pandemic took hold and they switched to teachers using digital tools to educate more than 70,000 students at home on their computer screens.

Now frustration with at-home instruction is mounting for myriad reasons among a growing group of parents and students. They have begun to unite and express their strong desire to reopen school campuses, saying they are willing to take public health risks.

On Thursday, about 100 parents and students rallied in Santa Rosa’s Old Courthouse Square, calling for a return to classrooms.

Cardinal Newman High School junior Gianna Ratto, who attended the rally, said the many months of remote learning has been “emotionally draining” and robs her and other students of the things that make school enjoyable.

“I just sit there on the computer for six hours a day and I don’t get to see my friends,“ Ratto said. ”I know that it’s a risk to go back, but I’d be willing to do anything. I’d wear the mask, I’ll follow every social distancing rule, I just want some sense of normalcy again.“

The demonstration urging the reopening of schools came on the heels of Santa Rosa City Schools’ decision Wednesday night to stick with online-only classes through December. That determination, by the largest public school district in the county, was seen as a bellwether for other districts facing similar decisions.

As it stands now, Sonoma County is among 30 counties barred by the state from resuming any classroom instruction because widespread virus transmission continues in these locales. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s reopening plan, implemented in late August, established four stages of community reopening based on two benchmarks: the number of new daily virus infections per 100,000 residents and the percentage of daily positive COVID-19 tests in a county.

After nearly three weeks in the stage with the most restrictions on area businesses and public venues, there has been a significant drop in new virus cases and the coronavirus test positivity rate in the county.

County health officials said Friday the local positivity rate is 5.3%, easily clearing the 8% threshold required before the county can progress to the next reopening stage, which is less restrictive. However, the county continues to be out of state compliance with its number of new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents.

The county’s new infection rate stood at 10.3 new cases a day per 100,000 residents, as of Friday. To move into the next reopening stage, in which spread of the virus is deemed “substantial,“ counties must cut their daily new virus case rate to fewer than 7 cases per 100,000 people.

Mase said she hopes the county can continue a recent downward infection trend. If that occurs and the county advances according to the state’s reopening plan, any waivers Mase would grant for schools to resume classroom instruction can take effect after 14 days.

The day before the Thursday Santa Rosa rally pushing for schools to reopen, Mase warned of the possibility of COVID-19 outbreaks among schoolchildren if the proper steps are not taken when classes resume on campuses.

The health officer issued that warning Wednesday while disclosing alarming recent widespread outbreaks of the highly contagious infectious disease at 13 unidentified preschool and home-based child care centers around the county. Of 62 people infected in the recent outbreaks, 25 were children, mostly age 6 and younger. Another 27 of were family members of the children and 10 were workers at the privately run preschools and day care centers unaffiliated with any school districts.

Mase said while children are less likely to suffer the worst consequences of the coronavirus, "really adverse outcomes“ are still a possibility. And she said outbreaks involving children eventually lead to infections among adults, who are at greater risk of serious health complications from the virus.

Since the start of the pandemic in mid-March through Sept. 10, there have been 780 residents age 17 and under that have been infected by the virus, according to Sonoma County public health data. About 380 COVID-19 cases among that age group remain under investigation by public health staff.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

Track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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