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Sonoma County private schools look for opportunities to bring students back to campus

Brothers Maddox and Xander Halim have had a smoother time than many students with distance learning, with a stay-at home mom to set them up each morning and a working father to support their ongoing private education.

Still, the days come when Maddox will ask his parents: will I ever see my friends again?

“As I talk to other parents in our social group, it’s a pretty shared experience,” said their father, Khalid Halim. “That lack of ability to provide some sort of predictability to your kids about what tomorrow is going to be like.”

Their school, Summerfield Waldorf School and Farm, is trying to remove some of that uncertainty and bring the Halim boys and many of their classmates back together again. It is one of the first schools in Sonoma County to move toward reopening its grounds to some of its students, using health procotols approved earlier this summer for day camps.

Unhealthy levels of wildfire smoke in the air forced the school to repeatedly cancel its plans to welcome its youngest students back to the campus west of Santa Rosa after Labor Day, placing small groups in outdoor classrooms to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus. It now hopes to resume some classroom activities this week, perhaps as soon as Tuesday.

“We’re sort of in flux,” said Jason Gross, instructor and member of the school’s governing council. “And we’re just working on being good at adapting as fast as possible.”

Leaders at other private and public schools are still determining their readiness to reopen classrooms safely and within the constraints of state rules regarding group sizes and social distancing.

Summerfield, which sits on 35 acres of land north of Sebastopol, offered plenty of space to set up outdoor classrooms. Under the expanses of tent roofs, air circulates freely and students will be seated at least six feet apart.

Khalid Halim said he and his wife Torey volunteered to help set up the classrooms a few weeks ago to see for themselves what the setup would look like.

“We are 100% comfortable and plan to participate,” he said.

Summerfield is staking its ability to bring back all of its students in first through fourth grade — about a quarter of its total student population — on a piece of guidance issued by the California Department of Public Health on Sept. 4.

The guidance lays out parameters for “necessary in-person child supervision and limited instruction, targeted support services, and facilitation of distance learning in small group environments for a specified subset of children and youth.”

A supplemental FAQ document clarified that schools should prioritize students with disabilities, students learning English, students in foster care or who are homeless, and any students “at higher risk of further learning loss or not participating in distance learning.”

It’s that last category in which Gross said his school considers its youngest learners to fall. Because Waldorf curriculum discourages use of screens in conveying lessons and doing homework, teachers in the early education grades have been especially reliant on analog materials: textbooks, art projects that families can pick up at their school or materials parents can print at home, Gross said. Short check-ins over video calls, a chance to see classmates, are the norm, rather than extended instructional periods.

“We and our families want as little screen time as possible for those younger grades, so we consider that a vulnerable group,” Gross said.

It’s not immediately clear how many other local schools, private or public, have started to bring any students back to the classroom. While schools seeking to reopen must comply with public health guidelines, they are not required to secure advance approval from the Sonoma County Office of Education or the Sonoma County Health Services Department.

Dr. Sundari Mase, Sonoma County’s health officer, said close communication between her department and the county education office should help enable schools to follow the rules exactly — though that also depends on schools being in communication with the county departments.

“When we do hear about these kinds of activities, we’re able to provide guidance,” she said.

Steve Herrington, county schools superintendent, has also been “very open to having discussions with a school recommending best practices and mitigation factors,” she said.

Among the rules that schools have to follow: they must keep students in cohorts of no more than 14, and must keep groups from mixing. The total number of students they bring back, according to the state rules, “should generally not exceed 25% of the school’s enrollment size.”

Schools have wrestled with the built-in vagueness in that portion of the guidance, but SCOE interpreted it to mean 25% of the total school population across all the cohorts — not 25% at a time, said spokeswoman Jamie Hansen.

Constraints surrounding building capacity and other concerns have kept some schools from pursuing re-opening as Summerfield has.

The Presentation School, an independent K-8 school in Sonoma with 193 students, will not reopen the campus until a task force comprised of school leadership, staff, parents and medical officials determine it is safe, said Jacqueline Gallo, head of school.

“I think it’s pretty clear that that guidance is to support some of the most vulnerable students during such a difficult time,” Gallo said. “We don’t want to try to be taking advantage of things that are clearly intended for certain demographics.”

Sonoma Country Day School, a K-8 school north of Santa Rosa with 275 students, hadn’t yet landed on a decision about bringing students back to campus, said Brad Weaver, head of the school. All classes have been conducted remotely since the beginning of the school year.

“We’re also recognizing that the county still has a pretty high significance of community spread (of COVID-19),” he said. “The last thing we want to do is bring students on prematurely and have a student or an employee get sick.”

Summerfield, when its young students do arrive on campus, intends to split them into small groups that will learn together until a broader reopening of the school. These groups, or cohorts, will visit the campus in five-week blocks, with 10 days between groups to allow for cleaning.

Gross said the school is reopening under protocols approved by the county Health Services Department for a camp the school had planned for this summer. The camp never took place, though, because Sonoma County’s coronavirus cases were soaring and he said county officials asked schools not to host in-person camps in order to reduce the risk of community spread.

Now, he said, with some parents struggling to maintain the costs of both child care and tuition, Summerfield worked quickly to establish the in-person program, “so we can relieve that pressure from our parents as fast as possible.”

Back at the Halim household, Khalid said he’ll be glad to see Maddox and Xander learning with their peers from a safe distance again. But he said he’s also been pleasantly surprised by what he’s learned about his sons outside of the rhythm of dropping them off and picking them up from their school campus.

“Now, we get to sit there and experience our children as learners, get to see how they learn and process new and challenging things. It’s just a window into our children that we didn’t have before,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay.

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