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Sonoma County’s first day of school looked like last day in spring — empty classrooms

Wednesday was the first day of the 2020-21 school year at Rancho Cotate High School in Rohnert Park, and staff was busy.

Science teacher Chris Steffens demonstrated how various materials interact with water, turning a series of potions green, red and yellow in clear beakers.

“This is why we never drink out of science glassware,” Steffens told his class.

Physical education/yoga teacher Sophia Corbett was tracking down the resistance bands and mats the school would be handing out to students, while Principal Louis Ganzler was giving a one-on-one tour of the new campus theater, arts and gymnasium building with its pristine film production lab and weight room.

The only thing missing was students.

The first day of the fall semester looked uncannily like the final day of the spring semester, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic that has remained lethal in Sonoma County, and all over America, far longer than anyone had dreamed when the infectious disease first swept the country in March.

Hallways at Rancho Cotate were empty, quads silent. Inside classrooms, teachers with headsets appeared to be conducting imaginary lessons.

The only students there were outside, in front of the school, where some freshmen joined their parents in a procession of cars to pick up their textbooks for the semester, and a free bag lunch if they wanted it. At 11:30 a.m., a couple dozen vehicles idled in the queue.

While most Santa Rosa schools begin instruction next Monday, the ball started rolling Wednesday in the Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified, Petaluma City Elementary, Petaluma Joint Union High and Two Rock Union school districts ― in all, a collection of about 30 schools. Administrators and teachers there had been preparing for this moment for weeks, but naturally there were hiccups.

Most of them revolved around the technological demands of teaching students who are at home participating online instead of in classrooms. Ganzler said he and his staff were working late Tuesday night “resetting passwords left and right.” He added, “I think (Thursday) will be fine.”

Rancho Cotate computer science teacher Kristi McWilliams said she noticed her first-period class had lower attendance than the next two sessions, and chalked it up to problems logging in to Google Meet sessions.

“The first day is always a little nerve-wracking,” McWilliams said. “And some students were a little shy about showing what’s in the room.”

Amy Jones didn’t have that problem. She teaches first grade at Two Rock Union School, a campus that serves nearly 130 children from transitional kindergarten to sixth grade, many of them from ranching or Coast Guard families, in the grazing land between Petaluma and Tomales. Her 6-year-olds had no trouble oversharing.

“One kid, her hairless cat came across the table while we were doing Zoom,” Jones said. “I was like, ‘Wait, your cat has no hair.’ And it started everybody bringing their cats online. I got a lot of tours of houses today.”

Two Rock Union doesn’t have to sort out the individual needs of 1,500 students like Rancho Cotate High, but the campus has its own challenges. Jones said there are connectivity problems in their rural area. A technology company donated hot spots to the school last year, but not enough to equip every family. Some children went to the Coast Guard base with their parents Wednesday, but Jones said the Wi-Fi there is a bit spotty, too.

“We had kids come to campus today and sit at picnic tables to connect,” she said. “And we’re lucky enough to have an aide who can do that, so they also had support for how to get on. It’s been a puzzle getting all the pieces together.”

Tracy Perlich’s children are considerably older. Her daughter is a junior at Petaluma High School, and her son is an eighth grader at McKinley School. Perlich and her husband both work at the house.

“So all four of us were, quote, working from home,” she said. “For my son’s 13th birthday, he asked for a desk in his room. That was fortunate timing. He went to his meetings in his room, my daughter went to meetings in her room. My husband and I share an office. Everyone can be on their calls, not interrupting anyone else.”

In fact, distance learning might be easier on families in some ways. Perlich said that during a normal school year, first period starts before 8 a.m. These days her kids start weekday mornings at 8:45 or 9, and of course no one has to drive to school.

“I told them, ‘This is like summer vacation. I got up and made pancakes for you,’ ” Perlich said.

The Petaluma mom understands that things might get trickier when students get deeper into homework projects. All in all, though, it’s evident schools are working hard to, as Perlich put it, “make a normal school day from a nontraditional format.”

Rancho Cotate may be doing it more drastically than most. The high school has temporarily abandoned the six periods a day for what Ganzler is calling a “3 x 3 + 1” format: three classes per semester for each student supplemented by yearlong support classes (such as special education), all of them five days a week, with 90 minutes of classroom time each day plus additional time for tutorials and work completion.

Ganzler sees several advantages. One is that the new class format results in smaller class size. Rancho Cotate classes now max out at 25 students, a more manageable group for online sessions. Another positive: A schedule of just three classes would make it easier to pivot to a hybrid teaching environment, which would include some on-campus instruction, should Sonoma County manage to escape sometime this semester Gov. Gavin Newsom’s watchlist of counties statewide struggling most to contain COVID-19.

Of course, distance learning falls flat in some ways. The green screen in film teacher Jason Dawe’s production room will go unused for a while.

And Corbett said she’s unable to direct subtle shifts in body movement in her yoga classes. At the same time, teachers are joining parents in pointing out that empty classrooms have benefits, too.

“I will say it’s a lot quieter,” Rancho Cotate teacher McWilliams said.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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