Sonoma County schools draw up plan to resume classes after coronavirus shutdown

Sonoma County education officials hope to reopen school campuses in some fashion this August. But many educators remain skeptical that classes will resume as normal while districts struggle with safety and budget challenges.|

Sonoma County education officials are drawing up plans to reopen school campuses in some fashion this August, even as many educators remain skeptical that classes will resume as normal while districts struggle with safety and budget challenges created by the coronavirus pandemic.

Sonoma County Superintendent of Schools Steve Herrington will convene a meeting of education leaders and county health officer Dr. Sundari Mase on Wednesday to help finalize guidelines officials can use to craft reopening plans for the county’s 40 school districts.

Options are likely to include a continuation of distance learning, alternating schedules on campus, independent study and a traditional school day. All include daily temperature checks, facial coverings and 6 feet of social distance.

“Each district has to create their model based on their own reality and resources,” Herrington said.

Sonoma County schools have been shuttered since mid-March, moving 70,000 K-12 students and their teachers into distance-learning programs that relied heavily on both in-home technology and parent participation while eliminating traditional grading protocols for most schools and students.

Acknowledging both the shortcomings in online lessons as well as equity issues for families with less access to technology and daytime child care, education officials are working to reopen schools while following evolving health and safety guidelines from state and county officials.

Herrington expects to present an updated roadmap to the county’s 40 superintendents on Friday following the meeting with Mase. Five district superintendents - from Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Cloverdale, Guerneville and Twin Hills - will participate in Wednesday’s meeting.

“This is my fourth version of this in the last three weeks,” Herrington said. “What we work out today can be changed tomorrow by the state.”

Santa Rosa City Schools Superintendent Diann Kitamura expressed doubt that Sonoma County’s largest school district - with 16,000 students and 1,600 employees - would reopen any campuses in August, given the cuts in state funding and list of expensive health and safety requirements that must be met to resume in-person classes.

“With everything that I know at this point in time, it is questionable to me whether or not students would be back on the 13th (of August),” Kitamura said. “I have to maintain a safe environment for kids and staff, period. In order to do that there are a lot of things that have to happen between now and August 13th.”

On Wednesday the Santa Rosa School Board is hosting a special meeting with the Santa Rosa Teachers Association, California School Employees Association and elected officials to highlight the financial challenges of dealing with the coronavirus.

“The biggest question superintendents have is we need to implement all these mitigations in order to open, but how do we implement them when we are being cut?” Kitamura said.

State schools chief Tony Thurmond has estimated that districts will need to increase spending by as much as 30% to create a safe schedule and environment for students and staff. At the same time, Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed slashing K-12 and community college funding by $13.5 billion in the face of the state’s $54 billion deficit. The May budget revise includes using about $5.5 billion in federal coronavirus assistance funds to address the massive cuts. But the rest of the shortfall could require deep cuts at a time when school districts will be asked to offer school in a format that will very likely cause a spike in spending.

“That is where the uncertainty is coming from,” said Guerneville schools Superintendent Dana Pedersen, a member of the committee meeting with Herrington and Mase Wednesday. “We can come up with all kinds of scenarios and models but my understanding to date is that there has been no commitment for funding.”

The issue is expected to further highlight inequities in both health care and the school system.

In the latest figures released by county public health officials, 95% of youth under 18 who have tested positive for coronavirus are Latino even though Latinos make up only 32% of that age group countywide. Demographic differences in the spread of the virus could require some schools, even those within the same district, to craft reopening plans customized for their student population and needs, Kitamura said.

“It could look different,” she said. “People may not want to hear that, but that is the reality.”

For Pedersen, the closure of schools has put acute pressure on families in her district.

“Seventy-five percent (of students) are already living in some form of poverty,” she said. “Our parents need to get back to work. That’s an entire challenge unto itself.”

Part of the issue is that schools are not simply 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. classrooms as in eras past. For many schools and districts, schools are a place for child care before and after school, breakfast and lunch programs and community resource centers.

The county plan being discussed with Mase on Wednesday is meant to be a set of rules and health guidelines from which district leaders can craft more individualized plans going forward, Herrington said. What may work for smaller, rural districts might not work for the larger districts like Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Windsor and Cotati-Rohnert Park.

Santa Rosa City Schools has a 200-person committee with staff, teachers, parents and students working in groups to craft a roadmap to reopen. The goal is to have a plan to present to the board of trustees on July 8.

Will Lyon, president of the SRTA, said the potential for cross-contamination on campuses will be high even if districts move to half days, block schedules, or even cohort student groups.

“When you are actually in a school setting, it’s the exact opposite of social distancing,” he said. “What number of students can you put in a classroom and maintain social distancing? Because they are children, that number might be zero.”

“People think just give the kids masks and wipe everything down when they leave. It’s 10 times more complicated than that,” Lyon said.

For Cloverdale Superintendent Jeremy Decker, grappling with an ever-changing list of unknowns is difficult both on district staff and students and their families.

“I know that parents have to be frustrated. I’m frustrated,” he said. “Parents need to know ‘What days are my kids going to school and what are the hours?’”

Add to that deep budget cuts and added expenses and kids’ school experience will look different come August.

“We are completely shortchanging kids with a 10% reduction,” he said

“This is a heavy lift for school districts,” Decker said. “We are resourceful. We always figure out a way, but it’s going to tough on kids.”

You can reach staff writer Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.