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Sonoma County officials to schools: Start planning for distance learning through December

With cases, deaths and the rate of positive tests from coronavirus spiking locally, Sonoma County school districts are being directed by public health and education leaders to immediately begin planning to continue distance learning through December.

In a joint letter issued Thursday to both public and private school administrators across the county, Sonoma County Schools Superintendent Steve Herrington and Dr. Sundari Mase, the county’s health officer, urged schools and districts to begin considering and planning for no return to the classroom until 2021.

“Sonoma County is currently experiencing high case rates and test positivity rates that show significant uncontrolled community spread of the virus,” the letter reads. “Under this type of community spread, it is predicted that school opening would likely result in positive cases on campus, which would in turn create more disruption for students, families, and staff due to the need for isolation, quarantine, and possible school closure.”

The letter, which is billed as guidance but not a mandate, also acknowledges a lag in the turnaround time of test results and a lack of full capacity for contact tracing as further impediments to reopening campuses.

SCOE_SCDHS Letter 08-19-20.pdf

The guidance comes as approximately 35 local districts or schools, both public and private, have sought information on waivers that would allow campuses to host in-person classes for kindergarten through sixth grade if a series of health and safety protocols are met. Approximately two-thirds of the requests have come from private schools and the rest came from districts or individual charter schools, Herrington said.

Despite interest from some in reopening, waivers will not be considered in counties where the case rate per 100,000 people exceeds 200. As of Tuesday, the case rate was 266 in Sonoma County, up from 245 on Aug. 14.

“It’s a moot point right now because we exceed the state standard for granting waivers with our case rate,” Herrington said. “That is the only deal breaker that the state has set for their criteria.”

In Petaluma City Schools, where classes started online Aug. 12, officials will reevaluate any change to the instructional model in mid-October, Superintendent Gary Callahan said. The ever-changing status of the virus makes locking into any decision feel unwise, he said.

“It’s a fair middle ground to take,” he said. “That doesn’t preclude the board and the district from making an earlier call, but it gives folks enough time to plan.”

Petaluma, like other districts in the county and the state, is feeling pressure both to open classrooms and to keep things shuttered and focus exclusively on distance learning.

But the current statistics in Sonoma County — the same trends that prompted Herrington and Mase’s letter — make the decision to continue to work remotely clear at this point, Callahan said. Additionally, he has not sought a waiver to bring any of the district’s approximately 7,800 students back to campus.

“I don’t anticipate us pulling a waiver until we see how things are going for other individuals who have pulled a waiver,” he said. “We are not interested in being the guinea pig in this process; we are going to look at other schools. We are not going to be the one to lead this out.”

More concerning perhaps than even the current case rates are reports of COVID-19 tests taking between eight and 14 days to return results, he said.

“I do not anticipate our schools opening until the health and safety metrics have come down significantly and we can have immediate point-of-care testing,” Callahan said. “I can’t even imagine what the implication would be if there was a teacher and we continue working eight days only to find out we have” a positive case.

Herrington and Mase acknowledged the concern over contact tracing and testing in their letter to district leaders.

“With the current capacity, it would be insufficient to address the anticipated increase in caseload once students return to campus,” it reads. “Without adequate testing and contact tracing capacity, it would be inadvisable for school districts, charters, or private schools to reopen, as their ability to remain open safely would be hampered by the need to respond quickly to isolate and quarantine confirmed cases and cohorts to prevent the spread of the disease on campus.”

Santa Rosa City Schools, the largest district in the county by far with nearly 16,000 students, has pledged to reexamine the way forward at the close of the first quarter on Oct. 9. The district pushed back its start date from Aug. 13 to Aug. 17 in order to hold professional development for teachers with a focus on online instruction.

The county guidance comes as districts and schools throughout California seek waivers to the state’s ban on in-person classes for counties that are on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s coronavirus watchlist. Counties must be off the watchlist for 14 days before schools and districts can open for in-person classes without a waiver.

Sonoma County has been on the list since July 10.

Dozens of California elementary schools have been issued waivers, but state health authorities have not disclosed how many have been given the green light statewide, according to the Associated Press. A small public school in rural San Bernardino County that was first approved last week opened its classrooms on Thursday.

Locally, many school officials have expressed interest in securing waivers to bring small, controlled cohorts of students who are considered high need, such as special education and English learners, to campus. Those students and their families are considered keenly underserved by distance learning.

Although distributed by the county Office of Education, any waiver application goes directly to the county public health department for consideration, and applicants must meet a series of criteria outlined in the Office of Education’s return to school plan.

“We are out of it,” Herrington said of the issuance of waivers. “It’s a health issue, it’s not an educational issue.”

Callahan expressed dismay that anyone would push for a return to the classroom in conditions as they are currently. He called in-person returns conducted in other states “disastrous.”

“That is the question we have: Why are folks still holding so firm to what the data is not saying? The data is saying that the deployment models that have taken place to bring students back have been largely unsuccessful and dangerous,” he said. “If someone can find one, please call me and let me know so we can take a hard look at it. We are in a pandemic.”

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

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