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Sonoma County schools told to focus on hybrid reopening in August

Taking direction from legislation accompanying the state’s approximately $202 billion budget, school districts in Sonoma County are being advised to start the upcoming school year in August with a mixture of classroom and distance-learning instruction.

Schools should be prepared to reopen classrooms, at least partially, unless ordered to keep them closed by local or state health officials, Sonoma County Superintendent of Schools Steve Herrington said in an email advising the county’s 40 school districts on how to comply with the state’s new guidelines.

Back-to-school plans should include both classroom and distance options for students, a hybrid model that can be adjusted based on the progression of the coronavirus pandemic. But school districts should not rely on a distance-only model for students returning in the fall, Herrington said. Distance learning — panned as ineffective and disproportionately difficult for working families when schools were shuttered in mid March — is discouraged under AB 77, a trailer bill accompanying the budget, Herrington said in his email.

“Essentially, the confusing language in the bill was meant to prevent a school district from moving to a distance learning-only model, unless it was required by public health,” he wrote. “In other words, they want (districts) to make a good faith effort to reopen their campuses to students to the extent possible.”

Students and teachers returning to classrooms must maintain 6 feet of social distance under county guidelines, Herrington said. Facial coverings will be required for students 12 and older and recommended for students younger than 12. Students with high-risk health conditions will be allowed to stay home and study remotely.

But even as some, including Santa Rosa City Schools, were advancing in their planning for a hybrid-based reopening, key questions remain. Santa Rosa officials on Friday were awaiting legal advice or an update on any changes to the bill’s wording around whether a district would lose state funding should a family opt for a full distance learning program instead of a hybrid model.

“The law states that there are only two reasons that you can go to distance learning — one, if it’s ordered by the state or county, and two, if you are medically fragile,” said Santa Rosa City Schools Superintendent Diann Kitamura. “What that means for Santa Rosa City Schools, and really for all schools, to the greatest extent possible the Legislature wants us to start with in-person learning in a hybrid model, knowing that depending on what the virus does … we could, by the time school starts … have to go to distance learning.”

The question over state funding for those who may opt to stay home is crucial for districts.

As many as 15% to 20% percent of families in Santa Rosa’s 16,000-student district have indicated they may opt for a distance-only model when school starts, Kitamura said.

“I’m certainly having legal counsel help us unpack it,” she said. “It’s really critical. If you do not comply with their legislation — that is confusing — then we will not be held harmless in terms of (funding based on daily attendance).”

That said, Kitamura said the district is now preparing to open schools with a part in-class, part distance structure. A 220-member group of teachers, administrators, students and others have submitted guidance that is being boiled down this weekend before being used as a roadmap when district officials meet next week with unions representing teachers and classified staff. The goal remains to get a reopening plan to the board of trustees at their July 8 meeting.

Santa Rosa schools are scheduled to start Aug. 13 but that could be pushed back if a series of professional development days — focused on the implementation of both hybrid and distance models — are scheduled.

“The public, they want to know. I know that parents need to plan and teachers need to plan,” Kitamura said. “I am hopeful that we will be able to get (union agreements) hammered out.”

But concern remains as the county continues to struggle to slow the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus. Schools are a central piece to the reopening of the economy, but many parents and educators are expressing worry that if not handled correctly, the resumption of school could spur a spike in COVID-19 cases.

Also in the mix are families, many of them with parents who never stopped working or who must return to work and use the school system as day care for their children. Many of these parents are desperate for schools to be fully operational in August.

“In the community, it’s so divided,” Kitamura said. “We just have people who don’t want to come back and people who want to come back. It’s super, super divided.”

That divide is affecting not only families, but teachers and staff. On Friday, hundreds of teachers from a variety of districts around Sonoma County staged a drive-thru protest in the parking lot of the county Office of Education. Many were spurred to attend by Herrington’s earlier advocacy for a proposal to reduce social distance from 6 to 4 feet, thereby increasing the number of students in a classroom. That proposal was shelved after Herrington met Wednesday with Sonoma County Public Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase, but it didn’t dissuade demonstrators.

“It’s just such a random thing to say without talking to those of us who are going to be in the classroom with those students,” said Kathryn Howell, an English teacher at Cook Middle School in Santa Rosa. “We are already going to have a hard time with social distancing with students of every age. I know elementary teachers are certainly worried about it.”

And as the reopening of schools will provide a hub of services to many families, some teachers expressed worry that campuses could become places of contagion.

“Even in a perfect world, ‘Kids don’t get it as much as adults — it’s fine,’ (but) they don’t live by themselves so they are going to transfer whatever they get or carry whatever they get back into the general public and the general public may not be safe and that’s a big concern too,” said Kris Ackerman, an English and history teacher at Cook.

The anticipated adoption of the state budget and its accompanying legislation was just one of the pieces in a topsy-turvy week that saw multiple moves to change mask-wearing policies and social distancing related to campuses in classrooms as the state’s approximately 1,000 school districts wrestle with how to reopen.

After the state Department of Public Health seemed to walk back exemptions to younger students wearing masks, school officials were sent scrambling trying to determine how that would look in elementary school classrooms.

The guidance, according to some educators, could change yet again.

But Herrington said on Thursday that a plan mapped out in coordination with Mase is not likely to change before the start of the school year, barring any major change in the behavior of the virus or number of cases.

“We are going to keep our guidelines the same,” he said, which means 6 feet of social distance and mask wearing where possible for those under 12 and required facial covering for those 12 and older.

Herrington will meet with Mase a month into the school year to assess progress and make adjustments as necessary. In the meantime, Herrington said he is telling district officials to make essentially four plans: A hybrid model for opening day, a plan to increase classroom instruction should virus cases drop, a plan for full return to campus and a plan to increase distance learning should virus numbers spike.

“Each district is going to set its own plan,” Herrington said. “It’s a guide. They are to build a plan off that.”

Districts that do not comply with county health guidelines run the risk of not being reimbursed by the state for lost attendance payments should they suffer an outbreak.

“You have to certify that you are in compliance,” Herrington said. “If you just pass it off and say your community accepts that then you have to accept that you might not be reimbursed.”

Herrington, like Kitamura, acknowledged the situation is fraught.

“A lot of people are nervous right now, I get it. I understand that,” he said. “In 10 weeks we don’t know what the situation is.”

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

Read the Sonoma County Office of Education’s schools reopening plan here:

Sonoma County Road Map to Safe Reopening FINAL v3.pdf

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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